RESTORING A DIT & DAH OF HISTORY
By Joseph L. Pontek, Sr. V31JP/K8JP
In 2011, I was bidding on E-Bay for an early 1923 Vibroplex Junior speed key and missed out because I had to re-sign in. Later, I saw this 1912 Vibroplex with the carrying case and cord. I won this one and brought it home to Belize in November, 2011. I had acquired, also, the Asphaltum powder used in making the original varnish for Japanning of the bases at that time. My suit cases were packed as I also brought home a bench top drill press, a milling vise, a watchmakers lathe, sewing machine motor, a toaster/broiler oven (for the primary use of baking the Japanning varnish), a few other tools and a 1955 Blue Racer Deluxe.
1912 Vibroplex Original as acquired in November, 2011
I had two purposes in mind for acquiring the older speed keys. I am still looking for a Vibroplex Junior, as I desire to compare the various speed keys as to their sending ease. And to see what their mechanical differences are. The second and maybe the most important to me, was to test my ability to truly ‘restore’ a speed key to its original condition. The Blue Racer is in need of having the base re-chromed. That requires stripping the base prior to being farmed out to a plating shop and then reassembling. With the Original speed key being made in 1912, I have an added objective; let it enjoy being used in its 100th year after being fully restored.
The 1912 Original appears to be nearly intact. There is a missing adjustment screw to the damper and the dot paddle is broken off. The dash knob was frozen (read that as rusted) into the dash lever. In removing it, the stud came loose from the knob. There is a small chip on the edge of the knob as well. If I cannot properly rethread the stud, a replacement will be made. Besides the chipped/worn Japanning on the base, much of the nickel plating is worn away. I called Scott, W4PA, at Vibroplex and they still have some of the old stock triangular dot paddles. These are Bakelite™ rather than the modern plastics of today. The paddle was promptly ordered and received at my daughter’s in Texas, soon to be delivered to me in Belize.
First task is to take pictures before and while disassembling for proper cleaning. Then, as each part is cleaned, it is evaluated as to the requirements for restoration. Some parts need to be promptly protected against oxidation (rusting) such as the dot and main springs and main arbour as they are not plated. I used boiled linseed oil thinned with an equal part of varnish makers and painters naphtha. The three feet will need replacing and as the new ones available are not the same size as the old ones, I will need to make new ones.
This pictures I am disassembling the key for cleaning and restoration.
The most time consuming part of this restoration is the Japanning of the base and will be started immediately. First, the base is stripped of the old finish using a ‘paint/varnish’ stripper. After the stripping is complete, it is sanded carefully so as to not round any edges. Then is thoroughly washed and rinsed and fully dried in the toaster oven at 200F for an hour and a half. If there is no serious pitting, it is given the first of five coats of the Japanning varnish. This process requires a stage of drying and then four stages of baking for each of the five or more coats of Japanning varnish.
While taking the first set of pictures, I took a closer look at the dash knob. I put a thread die to the stud that came out and recut the threads. It then screwed into the dash bar, but the end that protrudes through the dot paddle was quite distorted. I then cut to length a piece of 8-32 threaded zinc plated steel. I will have to heat the end of this rod and flatten it out. After which, I will remove the zinc plating, polish and nickel plate it. Once that is done, I will use some 5 minute black epoxy and fix it in place in the knob. I will repair the two nicks in the knob’s edge as well.
Fortunately, I checked where the damper adjustment screw was missing and found it was a 6-32, not an 8-32 screw. I readjusted my order for the replacement screw.
I then checked the wedge cord. Both ring connectors were off of the cord. In checking the cord for continuity, I found the brass wedge was so tarnished; there was no conductivity even along the surface of each side. A little brass polish resolved that problem. I then looked at the ring connectors. Unlike the similar cords of the late 50s and 60s, the cloth wire was soldered into a short barrel that was then crimped and soldered into the end of the ring connector. Later such connector types had a punched triangular spike that pierced the cloth wire to make the connection and held there with a crimp that grabbed the clothe covering as well.
I disassembled the key after some more pictures. I then put it in a glass baking pan with a wire underneath it and a piece of wire hooked through one hole. I then cover it with paint stripper. After a couple of hours and a few scrubbings with a paint brush, I took the pan outside and rinsed off the paint stripper. The paint brush I had used was now very void of any old paint, but the base had quite a bit of the Japanning still on it. The base went back into the baking pan and another covering with paint stripper was applied. I could not find my putty knives that I wanted to use to add the paint stripper. I finally resorted to using a scrapping blade on the end of a wire brush. I used two other neglected paint brushes to work the stripper around. I was going to be more aggressive after dinner, but our power went out. By the time our power was restored, my days work had caught up with me. So, the base soaked all night.
I had a customer drop off a tool that he needed repaired as soon as possible. I spent the whole day on it, but finished it right after supper. I then took the key base, still covered in pain remover outside and washed it and the baking dish thoroughly. As there was still some paint remaining, I sharpened the wire brush scraper’s edge and scraped the remaining paint away. I used an awl to clean out the holes and a butane torch to loosen or burn off any remaining old Japanning. It does not take much heat to remove the old Japanning. I then used an orbital sander with #80 grit discs to sand the top, bottom and all four sides. I used a file to smooth out some of the sand casting marks along the bottom edge on a couple of the sides. This is to remove any possible little tits that may pop through the Japanning. I taped the three foot screw holes with a 6-32 tap. I will put three screws into the holes so they protrude 1/2” out from the bottom of the base so when it is varnished, dried and baked without the base touching anything else.
I am now making some Japanning varnish. I will use a formula of 5 parts turpentine, 2 parts boiled linseed oil and slowly mix in 3 parts Asphaltum powder. I chose to not include rosin in my mixture, nor lamp black. I have a glass jar with a metal lid that has a small paint mixer’s shaft through it. There is a rubber bushing to keep the mixer blade off of the bottom and I tried using a reversible variable speed corded 3/8” electric drill motor. I put in the turpentine and linseed oil and added a portion of the Asphaltum. I then mixed this combination for about 5 minutes, occasionally reversing the drill’s rotation. I added more Asphaltum, mixed and repeated until I had all the Asphaltum portion is added and mixed. I continued mixing the varnish checking occasionally as to how the mixture hung on the walls of the glass jar and how dark it was. I kept this up throughout the rest of the day. In the morning, it appeared that more Asphaltum had dissolved as it was darker and slightly thicker. This may take a while. I considered making a fixture to hold this setup, but then it dawned on me, I could use my drill press and let it run continuously for quite a while. In all my reading, this mixing time varies from a few hours to a day or two. I suspect it is because the Asphaltum takes quite a while to be really dissolved by the turpentine. I have read that the varnish just setting will continue to dissolve the Asphaltum. Well, I started with this setup in mid-morning. By 4:30pm, the varnish was much darker and thicker.
During other chores, I put the base into a solution to derust it with electrolysis. After about an hour or so, I took the base out, washed it with clear water, dried it with a towel, rinsed it with alcohol and dried it with the towel again. I then placed it in the oven at 150°F to finish the drying.
While the base was drying, I tried to strain the varnish through two layers of tight knit cotton cloth. That was nearly impossible. With latex gloves on, I rung out the cloth and then tried a single layer. It too was nearly impossible and had to ring out this cloth, but I had more than enough for the job. This is a messy task. I had multi-layers of news paper on the floor and I threw all my varnish soiled paper, rags and rubber gloves on it. The base is dried, cooled and ready for the first varnishing. I installed three 6-32 screws into the foot holes with ¾” exposed. I started with one fine brush, but changed to an artist’s ½” brush. It was much better. I first lightly coated the bottom. I then turned it over using the screw feet. I then lightly coated the sides and then the top. I was careful to try and not wipe much into the holes. My toaster oven’s lowest temperature is 150°F and I want 125°F. I had noticed besides bake, broil and toast, there was a heat selection, also. I used it and it was 119 to 130°F. There the base set for 2 ½ hours. I, in the meantime, cleaned my brushes, the mixing jar, paint mixer and any other splashes and spills. I had the filtered varnish in a new glass jar with a well-sealed top.
These are the mixing, painting tools and the mixing setup with the drill press
After a lot of research about Japanning of tools and other items, one secret that is brought out, but not emphasized much is that each coat should not be too thick. It is recommended to use a camel hair brush to apply the varnish. These brushed are not really made of camel hair as camel hair, though fine, has insufficient spring to be an effective paint applicator. So called camel hair brushes are a fine haired brush, though.
The process now requires drying, either by air (in a dust free area) for 2 to 30 days or slowly dried at a low temperature of about 125°F for 2 ½ hours. I have a digital oven thermometer to insure my temperatures are not too hot. The Japanning will bubble up if the base becomes too hot too fast. Some suggest a cooling down period after each period of drying or baking, but I do not believe this is necessary if the temperature is held to the prescribed degrees. After this drying period that lets out most of the volatiles, the baking starts. First at 150°F for 1 hour, 200°F for ½ hour, 250°F for ½ hour, 300°F for ½ hour and, finally, 350°F for 1 ½ hours. This baking drives out the remaining volatiles and actually causes the remaining ingredients to combine even more then when mixed in the first process of making the varnish. As you can see, this is 6 ½ hours of drying and baking. For 5 coats of Japan varnish, it takes a total of 32 ½ hours of oven time alone, which is if each coat is hard cured after the cooling down period. If a coat is not hard to the fingernail test at this time, another or more 1 ½ hours of 350°F bake are required until it passes the fingernail hardness test, i.e. your fingernail will not leave a mark in the varnish after it has cooled.
I have used linseed oil to protect tools and I know it remains very tacky for up to several days, but it does protect the steel/iron tools. I will now try baking the linseed oil coatings to shorten the tacky state.
It is now 10:00pm and time to start the baking at 150°F for 1 hour. I go through the temperature ranges and keeping a close eye on the temperature. Once I go to 350°F at 12:30, I set the timer for 30 minutes. When those 30 minutes pass, I reset the timer to its maximum, 1 hour and I get go to bed. When the hour is passed, the oven goes off and the base will do a slow cool down and I can give it the finger nail test when I go back into the shop later this morning. When I return from a scheduled morning service call, I will lightly sand the base using a small piece of 600 grit sandpaper wrapped around a cork that is sawed in half the long way. Then I will apply the second coat of varnish and go through the drying and baking cycles again. If you use a timer to control the oven, you will never over bake the base. If it cools down, that appears to not be a problem as some even say the item should be cooled down after each baking step. It just means a longer time involved overall.
The next day took me away fro the project, but at 4:15pm, the wife wanted to bake a meat loaf in the little oven. I pulled the base out and found it was still tacky. After the meat loaf was done and then dinner, I went back into the shop and started the additional bake at 350°F. As I am watching the thermometer, the temperature never made it to 350°F. In fact, it only got up to 328°F. I turned up the temperature control until the temperature got to 350°F, and it cycled up and down 20° ± of the 350°F. This bake, I gave it 2 hours at the correct temperature. The next day, it was no longer tacky and passed the finger nail test.
I gave the base its second coat of varnish and will watch the temperature very closely. As I was cleaning up the brush, I had lacquer thinner close at hand. The brush actually became somewhat stiff. I switched to paint thinner and the brush cleaned out perfectly.
While the base is being Japanned, I will finish the disassembling, cleaning and polishing them. If any part needs to be plated again with nickel, I will do it then. If the nickel plating is to shine, the base metal needs to shine first. After any plating, the piece is buffed again to a shine.
I am starting the forth coat of Japanning. Coat two took extra last stages to become hard enough to pass the finger nail test. Coat three, I stepped up the temperature a bit, about 50°F per stage except at the start. There, I ran it at 150°F for 3 ½ hours. Then I went to 250°F for 1 hour, 300°F for an hour, 350°F for an hour and finally, 400°F for 2 hours. After a cooling down period, I repeated the 400°F for 2 hours. After this cool down, I wet sanded with 600 grit sandpaper, cleaned and dried the base. For coat number four, I applied the Japanning varnish a little heavier. I dried the base a bit longer, 4 ½ hours at 150°F. I then went through the baking temperatures and doing each for an hour instead of ½ hour. I, also, set the temperatures about 25°F higher at each baking step after the drying stage. While drying, I cleaned, polished and nickel plated and polished again the damper assembly. There was some brass showing through in places, but now it is fully nickel plated and shiny.
I will probably use an auto wax to protect it. I, also, suspect that there are different grades of asphaltum with different melting temperatures. I have often read do not go above such and such a temperature, usually between 350°F and 400°F. I know if you go too high in temperature too early in the process, the Japanning will bubble up and flake off.
Well, the base was not tacky, but it failed the finger nail test on the bottom. It went back for two hours at 375°F to 420°F and passed the finger nail test after cooling down. I then sanded the base with 600 grit paper again and applied the 5th coat of Japanning varnish. I dried this at 150°F for 2 ½ hours. As I had to go to bed, I started the bake in the morning at 200°F, followed by 250°F, 300°F and 350°F for one hour each. The final session was at 380°F to 410°F for two hours. The base looked very nice and smooth, but an inspection before the last bake, I noticed what looked like little points on the surface. After it cools, I will see what that was and if the coating is thick enough, if they will buff out.
The bumps were there yet, but another coating is needed. Also, it needed another bake. After it cools, I will sand it again and do another coat of varnish. The sanding is done very lightly, even with the 600 grit sandpaper.
Well, after 7 coats of Japan varnish and baking each for 6 to 9 hours, I buffed the base with rubbing and Tripoli compounds. I washed the base and dried it in the oven. After it cooled, I put on the pin strips and tick marks. That was not without problems. The first paint pen I used drew a perfect line. As I went to draw the second line, I shook the pen and the tip popped out! I put the tip back in, cleaned up the mess,
cleaned the base with lighter fluid, but the pen no longer worked. I went to the second best pen and did the pin strips.
Here is the finished base
Newly Japanned base with 7 coats of Japanning varnish
Now I have to finish cleaning and polishing the individual upper parts. Each part must be careful cleaned of any soil, rust or oil. I will polish each part to a shine so when it is nickel plated, I will be able to polish it to a shine. Shiny base gives a shiny finish product.
Credit/ source- Joseph L. Pontek, Sr. V31JP/K8JP
Many thanks Joseph!