Friday, July 29, 2011

The Old Zenith

A few years ago my wife came home from visiting her mother’s house and brought back a pile of faded wood and wires that was once a console radio.  It was currently a high-rise wasp apartment building.  I have some electronic experience and quite a bit of woodworking under my belt.  I thought that the innards were probably shot and I might end up using it as a retro-looking MP3 player.
A little research of the model number indicated that it was a 1937 Zenith Farm Radio.  It was originally sold with a wind charger and ran on a battery.  It made the large burn on the bottom shelf make sense.  The battery must have leaked.  The radio belonged to my wife’s great-grandparents and has remained in the family.  
One evening I started taking it apart.  The first thing that caught my attention was the workmanship.  It was built by hand.  There were no circuit boards.  The components were hand soldered.  The knobs are made of wood with set-screws holding them in place.  The tuning belt was leather.  I couldn’t imagine something built today looking that good after 70 years in a living room and four generations of kids.
I had no concerns about taking on the wood work myself.  All of the major parts were there.  As for the inside, I wasn’t too sure.  The old capacitors were shot and much of the cloth-insulated wiring needed to be replaced.  After more research, it appears that the radio didn’t originally run on regular house current.  It was battery only and the AC power feature was added later.  I decided it best to farm out the electrical work so I called Retro Audio Lab in Midland.  I can’t say enough about them.  They did amazing work on the radio and have a passion for restoring old gear.  They ran a build log here listed under “6B164.”  It was playing Craig Anderson’s radio show when I came in to pick it up.  The old grill cloth was a memory at this point.  I was able to find a small patch of the original cloth inside the frame.  I taped it to my computer monitor and surfed the catalog of some antique grille cloth manufacturers.  The rest was some basic stripping, cleaning, sanding and lacquer.  Car pin-striping did the trick in replacing the gold inlay.  I tossed a long-wire antenna out the back door and fired her up.  It works like it did in 1937.
We found a place in our living room for the old Zenith and fire it up from time to time.  It’s amazing to think of all the history that sounded from that speaker.  There is nothing like vacuum tube warmth and the glow of incandescent bulbs on an old dial face!  One of my next projects is an AM transmitter that will allow us to play anything over an unused frequency on the Zenith; mp3, satellite, etc.  We’ve already planned to listen to the original “War of the Worlds” when the transmitter is up and running.
This was one of my favorite shop projects.  It led to my interest in amateur radio and I understand what Rick Dale of American Restoration says about craftsmanship.  I’ve also come to appreciate the “boutique” electronics industry that is keeping this sort of thing alive.  There are guitar amps, amateur radio, stereo and do-it-yourself kits out there for the googling.    Sometimes it’s nice to turn all of the mass-produced Chinese digital stuff off and listen to the 70 year old analog tubes.


  1. I am wondering where you were able to search online with your model number to find out what your wife had brought home. My mother has an old Zenith radio exactly like yours, but in pretty much the same condition as yours is after you fixed it up. I have to model number, but have no idea when it was made. The only date I can find anywhere on it is November 8, 1936. The only things that it is missing are a big light bulb looking thing in the back and a small knob on the front. Any information or help you can give me would be greatly appreciated. Email is

  2. Google searching is helpful, and 1936 is probably the date if it's on the chassis or cabinet somewhere. I'd suggest sending the chassis to a shop as I did. Even if the missing parts are replaced, it's likely that the old capacitors are shot and need to be replaced. It'll run you around $300 depending on the shop, but it's well worth it especially if the cabinet is in good original condition.