W.E. Model 500There’s more than one way to clean vintage telephones, and most everyone develops their own technique over time. Beginners however, are often at a loss as to how to proceed, so to I’ve enlisted the help of Dennis Markham (VintageRotaryPhones.com), who generously consented to a Q&A on the subject:

Beyond resolving any functionality issues, I’m sure that cleaning is your first priority when restoring a vintage phone. How far do you typically “tear down” a phone for this process?

For purposes of this discussion I will describe my method as it relates to the Western Electric model 500, but it is pretty much the same for any phone I clean.
I begin by tearing down the phone completely. I separate the phone into three parts, the plastic, the internal parts (including screws, washers, nuts, etc) and the cords. Following that I break down the internal parts into another three areas, the ringer assembly, the dial and the network block. I use large plastic bowls to keep the parts separated.
The only parts left standing are the switch hook stack, the feet (which are riveted in place) and the dial governor. On the model 302 the feet are removed for cleaning.

What soaps, solvents etc. do you use for the various parts during this phase?

For the plastic (including Bakelite handsets) I soak the parts in a warm sudsy bath made with a mild liquid dish washing detergent. Any brand will do. Again a very warm water temperature, but not too hot.
For metal parts and brass I have begun using Simichrome polish almost exclusively. I used to use Brasso on the brass gongs but have found myself using Simichrome almost all the time for parts such as the gongs, brass/metal gears, screw heads another metal, unpainted surfaces. Brasso does a fine job but their formula was changed recently and I’m not as happy with the results. I also use regular rubbing alcohol, acetone (very carefully and well ventilated) and a all-purpose cleaner similar to 409. The cleaner I like is found at Home Depot and called Zep Citrus cleaner. It is quite concentrated so I dilute it with water in a spray bottle. I use that to clean the inside base, the bottom and the cords. Care must be used not to rub on the painted model and date on the bottom or it will rub away. I use Novus 2 on the plastic and Bakelite. Another product that I use for spraying the dial gears is a NON-LUBRICATING electrical contact cleaner that is available from Radio Shack. It is relatively expensive but does a nice job of removing gum and old grease from gears and axles. I also use a foamy suede cleaner on the leather feet. It is important to make sure the product is good for suede. Not all leather cleaners are good for suede. I also use regular house hold vinegar when I clean the brass gongs.
Note of caution: In addition to the normal precautions when using Acetone, care must be taken to not use Simichrome or acetone on the painted surfaces. It will remove the paint.

What suggestions would you give to someone about to attempt their first restoration?

If you are interested in making a nice looking, working telephone out of a dirty “garage sale” phone, go for it. Don’t be afraid to give it a shot. It’s not rocket science but does take a little time and patience. Restoring an old telephone can not only be fun but leaves one with a feeling of accomplishment and pride when the finished product is displayed and used. I recommend making a diagram of the wiring or any parts that are disassembled. That way things are reassembled properly and there won’t be any parts left over! Remember, these phones were made with the human in mind—for use and for repair.

What trends do you see developing in the vintage phone hobby?

I haven’t been around telephone collecting long enough to be able to address historical trends. However in the time that I have been involved with collecting telephones I believe that there has been an increase in interest by younger people. In addition to the baby-boomers that wax nostalgic over phones they remember having as a child, I see people in their early twenties that recognize that the telephones, going back as far the 1920’s through World War II, and phones of the 50’s and 60’s are much more than just a working practical telephone. They see them as an instruments with style and distinction. A true piece of our American heritage. Through all the years, during The Great Depression of the 1920’s, our Nation’s wars abroad or during tumultuous times at home—the Kennedy assassination, Civil Rights and campus unrest—The Beatles and man on the moon the telephone has stood by and performed as it was designed to so many years ago—and with style. Maybe the interest is a result of durability. Unlike products manufactured today that were made to be thrown away and replaced with a new one. The old phones were made to last, and last they have.
There is a wealth of knowledge out there regarding these devices we call telephones. Long-time employees of the Bell System turned phone collector are fervently trying to document its history and make that information available to all that care to participate. They are eager to share their knowledge with each other and with young enthusiasts alike. The hope is that the torch will be passed and knowledge will not die with the generation. Who knows, maybe the vintage rotary phones will be working long into the next Century.