Telephone Identification, Repair & Restoration > Telephone Restoration Projects and Techniques

Refurbishing a Western Electric 500 Step-By-Step: For Beginners

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So you have your first classic rotary phone.  Now what?  Maybe it doesn’t work, maybe something is broken, maybe it looks like someone buried it in the ground for 50 years.  Maybe you want to fix it but don’t know how, or don’t want to damage it.  Well look no further!
The following series of posts will illustrate how to disassemble, clean, refurbish, and otherwise condition a Western Electric 500 telephone.  The goal is to create documentation “for the beginner” to use for their first telephone project.

A little about me:
I purchased my first rotary phone just seven months ago—a WE Princess telephone at a thrift shop for $5 that was in need of serious attention.  Since then, I’ve acquired a few more phones, mostly WE 302s.  I was, at first, very disoriented when looking inside telephones simply because of the amount of wires.  But after getting up the guts to completely disassemble one, I realized it isn’t as complicated as it seems.  And the wiring diagrams on this site certainly help!  I have an extensive background in restoring pre-war and post-war Lionel Trains, so much of my approach draws from those experiences.

A little about my approach:
I don’t necessarily “restore” my telephones.  Restoring a phone is like restoring an automobile—making it look new or in many cases better than it was new.  I like old phones because they’re…old…so I’m okay with a little wear, I like it.  I instead I look to “refurbish” the phone; taking it to where it is at least clean and nice looking.  It’s only original once, so I prefer to keep it that way.  I’m also not a professional restorer, and don’t have the equipment to professionally restore.  Most of the tools/products I use you probably already have.

A few disclaimers:
The techniques in the posts to follow are what I’ve found to work for me.  There are inevitably many different opinions and approaches—and that what makes a hobby like this fun; there’s lots to learn!  Nothing that I plan to post has done any damage to the phones I’ve refurbished to date and a good amount of them I’ve actually learned from bits and pieces on this forum.  That said, to anyone reading this, please chime in and provide additional/alternative approaches or feedback.  If I’m doing something really off-base, this will be a learning experience for me too.  I’m still relatively green myself.  To all the former Bell technicians, I apologize in advance for using improper phone component terms.  :) Some of it is on purpose to make it easier to read.

Note: please be sure to read through this entire thread, as the instructional posts will be shuffled in with others comments and feedback.  Reading the entire post should give you the perspective of both my approach and anyone else that provides theirs.

Now, let’s dispense with the formalities and get into it! 

Pre-disassembly Testing

Before we even open the telephone, it’s best to be a little scientific.  First test the phone.  Does it ring, dial, talk, answer, etc?  If it doesn’t, fix the issues first.  If we ensure the phone is operational before we disassemble the entire thing, we know it should work on the reassembly—or we’ve done something wrong.

My test on this phone went as follows.  To wire it up, I used a modular wall mount block.  Wire the line cord lugs to the coordinated color, connect a modular cord between it & the phone line and we’re in business. (Picture1). Upon plugging it in, I got dial tone, and it dialed out perfectly.  It did not ring, so let’s check the two most common reasons why it might not.

To “open the phone” or remove the housing, unscrew the two screws on the bottom.  They will stay attached to the base when unscrewed from the housing. (Picture 2)

Now that we have it open, let’s take a look at the basic parts of the phone: the network, the dial, the ringer, and the switch hook. (Picture 3)
The bell system used three wires for the phone circuit: Tip, Ring, and Ground (Green, Red, and Yellow).  The modular system today only uses two, Red and Green.  Look at where the line cord comes into the network block.  Ah ha! That’s why it doesn’t ring.  The black wire from the ringer is wired to the G terminal (ground).  Move the black wire from G to L1 (where the green wire from the line cord is connected). (Picture 4)

Let’s also look at something called the bias spring, on the backside of the ringer near the gongs.  Ah ha! That’s also why it doesn’t ring.  The bias spring should be set all the way to the right on today’s phone networks.  Slide the spring around the spiral to the right. (Picture 5)
Testing the phone again…it rings!  It’s alive!  It’s alive!  All functions work perfectly.  If they didn’t, I would be asking questions on this forum to find out why and fix them before continuing.

Dating the phone

One more thing I like to do when first opening the phone is to find out exactly what I have.  Just like a classic automobile that has a “numbers matching” engine, transmission, and body, a telephone with components all dated the same or about the same is more desirable/valuable.  Though this isn’t to say a phone with mixed dates isn’t valuable; a date matching phone just commands a higher premium.

Check the date on the bottom, the network, ringer, and dial dates.  Unscrew the transmitter and receiver caps and check those dates.  Check the dates on the transmitter and receiver elements and the handset itself.  Check the date on the housing, this will either be on the front of the housing if it’s an earlier phone, or molded into the rear if it’s a later housing.  Also check the line cord and handset cord retainer ring dates.

Here is how this phone stacks up:
Frame: 10/57 (Picture 1)
Network: 10/57 (Picture 2)
Ringer: 10/57 (Picture 3)
Dial: 10/57 (Picture 4)
Handset caps: 12/62 (Picture 5 & 6)
Transmitter Element: 2/56 (Picture 7)
Receiver Element: 1/64 (Picture 8 )
Handset: 58 (Picture 8 )
Housing: 68 (Picture 9 & 10)
Line Cord: N/A (Did not come with a line cord, I added a spare)
Handset Cord: 68 (Picture 11)
Other: 2 newer plastic feet, 2 original leather feet (Picture 1)

So, this is likely a 10/57 that was refurbished at Bell Labs sometime in the late 60s.  This not at all uncommon or problematic.  In fact, it’s way more common than finding a numbers matching phone.  Phones were used—a lot—and their components needed repair over time.  

So, now that we know what we have, and we’ve confirmed its working condition, let the disassembling fun begin!

Dating the phone part 2


One more point to consider before we dive in.  I recommend taking pictures as you remove each part.  It's nice to be able to refer back to what it looked like before disassembly and will also document the original routing and orientation of the wires.  It's discouraging when you invest time in refurbishing the phone, only to end up with a crisscrossed birds nest mess of wires.  This way during reassembly you can place everything back the way it was. 

Start by removing the line cord.  Unscrew and remove the green, red, and yellow wire. (Picture 1) Then unhook the retainer ring from the frame.  (Picture 2)  Never unscrew the screws from the network all the way out; just enough to remove the spade lug then screw back in.  Take your time with each screw, being careful not to strip or damage it.

Then remove the handset cord.  Unscrew and remove the two white wires, the red, and black wire.  Unhook the retainer ring from the frame, as with the line cord. (Picture 3 & 4)

Remove the dial next.  First start by removing the dial from the frame by unscrewing the mounting screws found on either side of the dial. (Picture 5)  Some 500 models may also have a third screw on the bottom. (Picture 6) You will only have to unscrew them slightly to slide the dial off the mount.  I screw the mounting screws back into the dial so I don’t lose them.  Then unscrew the two white wires, the green wire, and the blue wire from the network block. (Picture 7)


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