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Cleaning Western Electric Ringers – Be Careful!

As part of the refurbish process I like to clean up all of the parts, including the ringer assembly. As I have written in the past, one never knows what lurks inside the nice hollow cavity of the ringer gongs. In the early days of my cleaning experiences, I would remove whatever parts I could remove from the phone. I would clean those parts the best I could and put things back together again. Now I am talking here about the C4A ringer of the Western Electric model 500 desk phone and the wall phone version, the model 554. On a couple of occasions I had removed the small bar-stock looking magnet that rides on the back of the ringer bell assembly. It didn’t take me long to figure out that I was doing more harm that good by removing the magnet so I stopped doing that. I didn’t know why it wasn’t good, but I knew it made some effect on the performance of the ringer. Many, many months would pass before a friend and fellow phone collector, Jorge Amely of California did some experiments on the ringers. Jorge’s study concluded that removing the coil and/or the magnet actually causes a reduction in magnetic flux that circulates within the ringer, thus affecting the performance. I will touch more on this topic in a future posting. (Jorge has created some beautiful web albums showing the results of his restoration work. Take a moment to look at his great telephones and work.) The warning is this; go ahead and remove the gongs if you feel the need to clean them, but DO NOT remove the coil or the magnet. (The coil is shown in the photo – behind the left gong. It is round with 4 wires connected). Removing the coil will reduce the performance slightly. Removing the small magnet will more than likely make the ringer useless.

I generally clean the ringers first using compressed air, followed by a Q-tip and alcohol, or a cleaning solution similar to 409 cleaner. I will remove the gongs for cleaning. I use Simichrome polish and a small wire wheel on the remaining parts.

I read a tip on cleaning the brass gongs which sounds far-out to many. That tip was to boil the gongs in a mixture of 50% water and 50% vinegar. After boiling the goings for 10-15 minutes they will still be in need of polishing but the cleaning process is greatly reduced. I used to spend a great deal of time just rubbing brass cleaner on the gongs to get them nice and shiny. With the vinegar method there is only need for one, maybe to coats of brass cleaner to make the bells shine–inside and out. It really works great in removing or softening years of oxidation and grime from the gongs and in my opinion the clarity of the ring is improved.

So what was once a dirty and partly corroded ringer bell assembly turned out very nice. It is clean, free of insects that may have taken up residence and now ready to go back to work for years to come!

8 responses to “Cleaning Western Electric Ringers – Be Careful!”

Good stuff! I would never have guessed that a ringer could be irreparably damaged by tearing it down too far. You can bet that many people have been left scratching their heads, wondering if they had reassembled it incorrectly!

Thanks Mark. I think it took me ruining two ringers before I figured out not to remove the magnets. But I continued to remove the coils for some time to clean them. Thanks to Jorge Amely for his experiments, research and conclusions. A dirty ringing ringer is much better than a clean one that doesn’t ring well!

It is pretty amazing to me to read about the the subtle things that you have learned in your experience restoring these old telephones.

I never would have suspected the ringer would be affected by removing the magnet, but that’s what makes you the expert, isn’t it?

Thank you Dave, but I’m no expert. I have learned much about these and other telephones thanks to all the collectors, like Jorge who are willing to share their knowledge.

Just a thought. I’ve never seen ringer gongs shine like yours when you’re done polishing them, even on NOS telephones. Do you think this is a “less authentic” restoration to polish them so? I know it’s an internal part, but I was restoring a telephone, polished the gongs, and then was sorry that I did. Compared to the rest of the insides of the phone that weren’t “polished”, it looked strange. Just wondered what you thought about that. I like my telephones to look just as they came out of the factory.

Thank you Jim for your comments. You have a valid point with regard to whether to restore or not to restore. It is an age-old argument and I see both sides. Some would rather not disturb the natural patina of the antique. I am careful to use the word “refurbish” rather than “restore”. I would agree on telephones that are “new old stock” that perhaps just leaving them alone is best. I have a couple of phones that are NOS and have not touched them. However most of the phones that I refurbish are ones that have been used for years and are even in the condition that some would not even think to put into service again. Most of the people that purchase a telephone from me are not collectors but those that just want one nice vintage phone that they can use and admire, perhaps to stimulate a memory of a time when the phones were in every day service. I try and make them as close as possible to their original condition but never claim to make them “new” again. Speaking of the ringer bells, because of the nature of the material that the gongs are made of, they will eventually tarnish again. I do detail the entire inside of the telephone, including screws, nuts, the network contacts, etc., so the bells do not look out of place as the rest of the phone has been cleaned as well. But again, I see your point and appreciate you taking the time to stimulate some thought on the subject. Again, I thank you for your comment!

Dennis, thanks for your advice about the removal of the magnets. I’m about to restore/refurbish an old rotary dial phone my grandfather gave me and I almost certainly would have removed it for cleaning. Now I know not to! I also was wondering if you happened to know what kind of plastic these phones were made of. The phone is a pale green color and I was considering (just considering, mind you) the possibility of painting it black.

You’re welcome, Nick. The telephones of color made by Western Electric prior to mid-June of 1959 were made of Tenite. Tenite is so-called “soft plastic” by collectors. Western Electric continued to manufacture black phones using Tenite for several years beyond the June 1959 date. Some are found as late as the mid-1960’s. After Tenite, the plastic used is ABS plastic, so-called “hard plastic” by collectors. Early G1 handsets were made of Bakelite. The G3 handset on your green phone were either hard or soft plastic. I wrote a short article about Soft Plastic back in 2009. This related article may be of some interest to you.

As far as painting the set of course what is yours is yours to do as you see fit. To a telephone collector/purist I would not recommend painting the phone. Black Model 500’s are abundant and easily obtained.

Thanks for your comment and for stopping by Vintage Rotary Phones!

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