Introduction: Restore and Rewire a 1930s Telephone

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So you're digging around, and you find what looks like it's a really old, grungy, telephone. You may not want it in your house because well, years of crust have accumulated. Or maybe it's not wired with a modern landline modular plug, so what's the point anyway? You might be surprised at the beautiful treasure hiding under those 70 years of grime.

This Instructable will provide some tips for how to restore your 1930s Western Digital telephone back to its former glory (or at least very close) and how to make it functional!


  • Old dirty phone (the one pictured is a Western Digital Space Saver)
  • Modern phone cord
  • 000 Steel Wool
  • Shoe Polish of the same color as your phone
  • Finishing wax
  • Flathead Screwdriver
  • Old Rags + Elbow grease!

Step 1: Clean Your Telephone!

  • You want to carefully clean your telephone! Using rags and water, carefully clean the outside of any obvious dust, making sure not to get water into the electronics (removing the parts to clean first can make this much easier).
  • Then use 000 steel wool to gently get rid of any other imperfections that may have accumulated over the years. Be gentle with this as sanding too vigorously can lead to going through the paint! With care, we were able to completely remove some unwanted spray paint that had accidentally found its way onto this phone.
  • Even in spots where the metal underneath is exposed, using the steel wool can help to "blend" the margins so they're not as harsh. This is especially helpful for stopping chipping / peeling powder coat from getting any worse in the future.

Step 2: Remove the Casing

Once you've cleaned it, it's time to get into the electronics!

  • Note the single flathead screw between you and 1930s wiring!
  • Unscrew said flathead.
  • Remove the casing carefully!

Step 3: Replace the Old Cable With a Modern Cable

Now for the modern RJ11 modular phone cord. Cut, strip, and tin the wires of the telephone end of the cable with the wall end of the cable totally disconnected from the wall / pbx / voip / whatever.

On the old telephone system, there would have been three or more wires to account for (red, green, yellow, etc.). These days, however, telephones only require a single pair of wires.

RJ11 modular cables use standard 6P2C connectors. For our purposes, we want the Tip 1 and Ring 1 pair. Tip 1 is on position 4 of the 6P2C connector (the green wire) while Ring 1 is position 3 on the 6P2C (the red wire). We do not require the black or yellow wires for this job, so now is a good time to trim them back and seal them off with some heat-shrink tubing (or electrical tape in a pinch). If you have a telephone spade lug pair, crimp or solder them to the red and green wires now.

If your old telephone still has its original old four pin plug / wire, remove that now. Connect the red wire to the terminal labeled R. Connect your green wire to the terminal labeled GN. Now jumper the GN terminal to the Y terminal (note the yellow jumper wire it the photograph). If you can't hear yourself talking on an old phone this jumper is what is generally missing! Go over all of the terminals and make sure they are all tight. You don't want one coming loose and rattling around inside the telephone.

This set up will of course differ depending on what kind of phone you have, but for classic Western Electric Bell System phones, this will most likely be the case. They had a state sponsored monopoly for many decades, and built their telephones to last, so chances are that most phones you find from this era will be Western Electric!

Step 4: Polish and Refine!

If the dial card in your telephone has seen better days or is missing, a great way to refresh it is to place a circle of paper from the same era over the top of the old one. It'll still have the same aged look, but not be torn up! It is also possible to find new old stock cards online for sale. The dial card is a great way to personalize your vintage phone in a way that can be easily changed by its next caretaker, because let's be honest ... these phones will last longer than any of us will.

Some Bonus Tips:

The card cover is easily removed by depressing the two tabs that go down into the dial with a flat screw driver. If you do have the cover removed, it's a great time to wash the dial card lens. A clean lens makes all the difference.

The nut for removing the dial is hidden under the dial card. It is much easier to clean the porcelain painted numbers with the dial removed. Our's came to us particularly dirty, so we removed all of these items and gave them all a bath with warm water, soap, and a bottle brush.

The finger stop may be oxidized (it will look like brass). You can get easily get it back to a classy polished nickel look with a little work with some 000 steel wool. You should remove it to do this though, as getting steel wool iron particles into the dial mechanism would be a bad thing. Removing it can be a little finicky, as one of the screws is a bit hard to get to, but it is worth the extra effort.

If your telephone is old enough, the handset will be made of Bakelite. Over time, Bakelite becomes scratched up, dull, and brown. This was absolutely the case with our handset. Take note, Bakelite was made with some nasty ingredients, we would recommend you do some further reading to decide how and if you want to do this next trick. For really good results restoring Bakelite, the first thing to do is to rough up the surface a little with some steel wool. This of course will remove more than 50 years of grime, but it will also remove some Bakelite - so only do it outside with a ventilator etc.

At this point you are ready for the super secret magic trick for making old black Bakelite beautiful again. Black shoe polish! Apply it liberally all over the handset and let it set up for 15 minutes. Rub off the excess and proceed to polish / buff it like you would a nice pair of leather shoes or boots. You might think that this would rub off on your hands later but no, black shoe polish is a wax that hardens really well and does not rub off easily. We were able to very quickly go from old and dull to a deep luster.

You can also use a very small amount of shoe polish on the telephone too. This will help fill in any micro scratches in the powder coated paint.

Finally, to get the paint on the phone looking really nice and shiny again, you can also use finishing wax. Besides looking great, this will protect the phone from getting rusted in the future.

Step 5: Enjoy Your Phone!

Now this old phone can be a lovely show piece and can actually function. We've tested ours with a voice over ip system for making calls over the internet (in style) and as an intercom node on our home's private branch exchange.

If you want use your old telephone on a system that does not support pulse dialing, you can find a converter box online or check out our Instructable on how to build your own DIY touch tone (DTMF) Altoids project here:

Another wonderful piece of historic technology saved from the dump!

Good luck on your own telephone restoration.

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