1938 RCA Radio Wine Bar

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About: Idea Man, Jack of all Trades, Master of None. Have gun will travel. Sometimes nothing is a real cool hand. Shoot the three and play no D.

I picked this 1938 RCA model 811k on CL for under $100. To me, when buying these old radios for a conversion, the challenge is to get as much functional use out of them while maintaining the original look of a functional radio.

Step 1: Beginning the Conversion

As can be seen, this radio needed to be refinished but all the veneer was intact other than some splaying on the top left side. I removed the carriage and speaker and all of the knobs and plastic facing and put them all away for safe keeping. I sold the carriage and speaker on CL at a low price since their are only a finite number of them around. I knew this would lend itself to a conversion while keeping the art deco radio look mostly intact.

Step 2: Stripping and Sanding

This is the most time consuming part of the project. Using 80 grit to break through the old varnish finish and then switching to 120 and 220 depending on the area, I stripped it completely. Some tight areas had some remaining old finish but when refinished, they arent really noticable and act as highlights in the finish.

Step 3: Cutting the Top

The top of the radio was only 1/4" thick, not thick enough to cut and hinge. I glued a piece of 3/4" pine to the inside top and clamped and weighted to ensure a complete glue up. I don't have any picture of this step but it was a basic measure, cut to size and glue completely. After the glue up, I drilled and chiseled the small square which will hold the brass opener. This is another reason the top had to be made thicker. To cut the top, I drilled a few small holes just enough to get a jig saw blade into, to cut the outline on the top. I clamped the top to hold it while cutting the final side. The pictures above show various angles of what was done. The final picture is of the finished an reinstalled hinged top.

Step 4: Preparing Wine Bottle Supports and Radio Bottom

These radios don't have bottoms. I usually template the bottom using paper which I then transfer to cardboard. I cut out the cardboard and tweak to fit as tight as possible. I then use it on a piece of 1/4" birch plywood and dry fit it into place. If supports are needed (this wont be supporting much weight), I add them to the radio bottom's sides. Most wine bottles are about 3" - 31/2" inches wide so I needed about 4" of clearance for each bottle. This radio allowed enough clearance for 4 wine bottles on each side. The front supports were cut and measured and drilled through using a 11/2" hole cutter. I then ripped down the center to make two supports from each piece of 3/4" select pine. I determined the placement of each leaving approximately 4" of spacing for each bottle. I used clamps to hold and mark before drilling, countersink drilling and installing. With the front supports mocked up and in place, it was time to determine the back circular supports. After careful measuring and laying out, I determined where the back supports should be placed and where the 31/2" holes should be cut. I used a 31/2 hole cutter and installed the two of them with screws through the bottom panel I had installed and through the original shelf in the cabinet. Afterwards, I broke them down and stained them and applied the varnish I would eventually use on the rest of the cabinet.

Step 5: Installing the Lighting

I've found that to really make these wine bars pop as conversation pieces, lighting is essential. I use these $30 under-cabinet LED lights purchased from Home Depot. The provide plenty of bright light with no heat. The wires are long enough to reach the electrical supply. I installed one in the top compartment to light the glasses and give the lighted radio effect at the end. I installed two below, above the two wine bottle columns. All three wire converge on a plug in which has the electrical wire with an on/off switch in the wire. I drilled a hole through the bottom to feed the electrical cord through.

Step 6: Installing the Wine Glass Shelf

The cabinet had a shelf which held the radio carriage but it wasn't level. I made a template and used 1/2" plywood to make a shelf. I covered it with cork for the glasses to sit on. I installed the shelf over the existing angled shelf. I screwed it in place to hold it tight.

Step 7: Staining and Varnishing the Radio

After all the mockups were completed, I stained the entire unit with a light brown walnut stain and finished with a spar varnish on top of that. I used a dark walnut stain only on the bottom "feet".

Step 8: Cleaning and Repairing the Radio's Escutcheon & Knobs

The first picture shows what it looked like on the original radio. Two labels were missing (which I later found in the radio) and the plastic was dirty. I took it all apart and shined the plastic parts with Novus compound to shine them up. The metal parts had a finish on them which did not lend them to being shined up with brass polish. I just cleaned them up and cleaned the glass with windex. This unit had a light on the top of the escutcheon which was part of the working carriage. I filled the hole with a piece of 1/4 ply stained and finished match the radio cabinet. After reinstalling it looked great.

Step 9: Reinstalling the Knobs

The six knobs originally slid onto the the carriage rods which fit through the holes in the front of the cabinet. I cut the heads off of threaded machine bolts and glued them into the knob backs using gorilla glue. Next I took pieces of 1/4" plywood to use as washers and drilled through the centers of each. I then threaded the knobs through the cabinet and the plywood and held them in place with the nuts. No concerns about the appearance because you cant see them.

Step 10: Applying a Back to the Radio Bar

I used 1/4" birch plywood and screwed in place with 5/8" screws. I stained the inside to match the rest of the radio cabinet. I didnt stain the back as it cant be seen against a wall. I did make sure to stain the edges as these are visible from the side and top. I stamped the project with my personal stamp (1") and will add a date with a sharpie later.

Step 11: The Finished Radio Bar

I'm very pleased with the final outcome. Although not perfect, this radio has been reincarnated for a modern use while retaining it original charm. It still has some of its "war wounds" which would be expected after 80 years. Its a great one of a kind functional conversation piece which looks great with any home's decor.

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