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John Newgrain

"Diary of a Clock Case maker" and restorer of Old Telephones

Little did I realise that when I made that first weight driven Vienna regulator wall clock for our home some 25 years ago I would, in time, be operating a full time business in South Australia doing just that and much more. 'Johns Clocks' specialising in the "Restoration and Repair of Clock Cases and Antique Telephones" is what the business card says now.

The clock specialty has always centred around the design and construction methods of the early 1800's to mid 1900's. Therefore, when I was approached fifteen years ago by a number of telephone enthusiasts to replicate crests, shelves, shapes and veneering repairs for old wooden cased telephones, the answer was "easy" and "yes".

Like most of us in the telephone collecting arena, I found the various types and models that were used in this state and country fascinating, and still do. This is somewhat of a miracle, as when I joined the PMG dept in 1959 my only interest (ie professional) was to enter the world of radio. Luckily for me, the first year of training was a complete indoctrination into the theoretical and practical world of magneto, central battery and auto telephony. Practical sessions included rewiring of British Ericssons and the assembly and adjustment of dials etc. Obviously I must have had some interest then in things to come, as I purchased a black bakelite model 162 Pyramid, as well as an APO 38 Candlestick. I paid the sum of 1 shilling for each. (We have all heard those stories). The following year I commenced a career of 38 years of Radio Communications, Teaching and Management, prior to setting up 'Johns Clocks' nine years ago.

That's the background in short and now to the current business:

During the last 2 years it has been very noticeable that the ratio of the work has changed. Wooden telephone case repairs and restorations now account for 70% of the work. Not that I mind this shift in emphasis. There is more remuneration in repairs and restoration of clocks than in construction. It's the old story, that the first level of manufacture is usually the least profitable.

Which brings me to the sort of work that, according to my diary, is now being done. To me it is fairly obvious that there are at least four groups of collectors. Most of my customers (Group 1 - the 70%) fall into the category of wanting to restore their telephones to a condition similar to that when leaving the factory.

I have quite a number of collectors (Group 2) that retain their phones in much the condition that they found them (usually well used). Their main interest is the locating and replacing of missing parts.

Then there is the group (3) which most of us would probably not call collectors. This is the group that want their phones to look like new, must have them rewired with modern components, and ready to operate on the network. They certainly look impressive, but I have doubts on their retention of value.

Lastly, I have some clients (Group 4) who believe that, by restoring their phones with the latest modern finishes, eg. polyurethane or clear lacquer, and buffing all original painted and nickel finishes back to the brass and beyond, is the way to go. This usually removes all the sharp edges and knurling. I can only suppose it's OK for them, providing it's not then sold on as an original. (It is of note that I see quite a number of these items purchased elsewhere, with the request of "please turn it back to its original state"). Sometimes I wish that these so called restoration enthusiasts would witness the techniques used in the restoration of classic motorcycles, cars and clocks etc. and note that it is the thorough and accurate restoration that retains and enhances their value. Hopefully, an account of some of the methods I use in my efforts may be useful.

Now to some examples of this week's diary:

1. Completed another nine replica British Ericsson writing slopes using American white oak. (I estimate that in excess of 400 of these have been made in recent years excluding the many similar types that have been added to American and "P" class railway boxes). With the plethora of suitably priced tools available today, I foresee many attempting to duplicate their missing oak shelves. I always use American white oak. Never any of the so-called Australian oaks as they are basically gum trees. Likewise, I use American black walnut and not the so-called Queensland walnut or various black woods (Acacias) when replacing Swedish Ericsson shelves, sides and pieces.

2. Finished repairing two Commonwealth Ericsson sides by drilling out a new hole for the generator shaft. Used a metal washer to locate the exact centre for the hole. Made sure the outside edge of the washer was concentric with the original circle and then estimated and marked the centre of the smaller hole, to locate the centre of the circle. This technique, using various sized washers, is used to easily mark the centre of smallish circles. Much of the timber was burnt and missing. New pieces of American walnut were added prior to shaping etc. The jointing of the two pieces necessitated the use of a sharp hand plane to prepare two exact and parallel edges prior to gluing. Although the world is now full of just about every conceivable power tool, at unbelievably low prices, there is still a requirement for hand tools in the final preparation stages. They remove the ripple marks that power planers and saws make, which prevent the close bonding of material required for precise and reliable jointing. I can only hope that the customer French polishes his Swedish phone with shellac and uses a small amount of raw linseed oil to achieve that deep traditional finish. But, that's another story.

3. A customer requested some old escutcheon pins to attach an equipment label. I keep a supply of old originals for this purpose although I sometimes oxidise new brass ones by holding them with a pair of old pliers and heating them to the desired tarnished colour with a butane gas torch.

4. This week I also prepared a couple of British Ericsson boxes for polishing. The removal of the two ebonite receiver cord feed-throughs, without breaking them, is usually the trickiest bit. I find that by a firm insertion of a tapered 10mm round file into the ferrule, and gentle rocking with a firm undoing pressure, I manage to slowly unwind and withdraw the piece. No doubt there are many other ways that do the job, but this works for me. I recently had to repair the timber around the bell cut off push button of a Commonwealth Swedish Ericsson phone where the previous restorer had tried unsuccessfully to remove the ferrule unit prior to re polishing. A suitably sized screw extractor will always unwind this unit and it is similarly re-inserted by winding it back into place from the terminal side.

Having operated this business full time for the last nine years, I can provide endless diary snippets of problems that occur, and of ways found to fix them. If this would be of value to your readers, I would, in the future, be happy to do a follow up article with some more restoration techniques.

Written about 2003.

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