SEE ALSO: ANTIQUE PHONOGRAPH AND MUSIC BOX BEGINNER'S GUIDES
Copyright 2007 Lynn Bilton
You have an heirloom Victrola that has performed admirably throughout the years, but now needs some help. You need to perform some basic repairs, or at least locate someone who can do this for you. In many cases, it's not that much work to get your Victrola singing again like Caruso. (If you're not a do-it-yourselfer, or the task involves something major like mainspring replacement, we offer repair service for many Victrolas.)
When I talk about Victrola repair in this article I am being deliberately something less than precise, because I am going to talk about Victrola type machines in general. Although the word Victrola technically refers to an internal horn talking machine made by the Victor Talking Machine Company of Camden, New Jersey, in popular speech this trademark came to be diluted to refer to any flat disc, spring motor record player, and this is the sense in which I am going to talk about Victrola repair.
There were many manufacturers and distributors of Victrola type machines, particularly as the market became mature in the late teens and early 1920s. Victor and Columbia were the big names, followed by secondary players such as Pathe, Brunswick, Aolian and Cheney. By the 1920s standard parts such as motors and tone arms were available from wholesalers to the trade, and many small companies pieced together machines in locally made cabinets. It would obviously be a task of more than Herculean proportions to catalogue repair instructions for every brand, and every model of every brand, so I intend to discuss Victrola repair in general. As to where to get parts, please see the Antique Phonograph FAQ.
I. Motor repair
CAUTION: Completely run down the motor before performing any repairs!
It's easier to show you a picture of a motor than to describe it, so here is an image of Victor's finest quadruple spring motor. Your motor and mileage may differ.
Click to enlarge
A typical Victrola motor works like this:
* Power is stored in a mainspring, which is enclosed in a spring barrel. Your Victrola may have one, or multiple, mainsprings. Additional mainsprings do not yield more power but rather extend the playing time.
* The mainspring is prevented from unwinding by means of a pawl.
* Power from the mainspring is communicated through a gear train which typically ends at a turntable drive gear.
* Speed is regulated by a mechanical governor. The governor usually consists of a collar with three or four small flat springs, each with a small metal ball attached to the middle.
Cleaning the motor
Victrola motors will tolerate an astonishing amount of old grease, but a good starting point for any repair is to clean the motor. It's perfectly acceptable, and sometime miraculous, to spray everything in the motor with a lethal dose of WD40. (If you have an early Columbia machine keep the WD40 off the fiber drive gear.) If you want a professional Victrola repair you can disassemble the motor and clean everything in a solvent such as lacquer thinner. I'd avoid the professional cleaning if the WD40 worked for the following reason: sometimes running a mainspring all the way down can cause the spring to slip off the arbor. Also, some manufacturers such as Victor used a tiny ball bearing at the bottom of the turntable drive shaft, so don't lose this if you tilt the disassembled motor.
Mainspring needs repair
Although it may seem odd to instruct you not to remove a mainspring in a tutorial about Victrola repair, this is exactly what I am going to do. There's a lot of kinetic energy stored in a mainspring, even when it's wound down in the barrel, and the mainspring has the potential to fly out and seriously hurt you. It's a lot easier, and safer, to ship out the old spring in the barrel and let someone else put in a new one for you.
Broken mainspring: The symptom of a broken mainspring is usually that you turn and turn the crank but meet no resistance, and that the spring never holds tension. If the spring seems to hold tension but the motor unwinds on its own, or the motor binds, it's possible you have something other than a broken mainspring. I'll talk about these scenarios later.
Mainspring off the arbor: If the spring seems to hold tension but doesn't have quite enough oomph to play a record, and seems as if you can wind it but it never winds up all the way, then it's possible you have a mainspring slipping off the arbor. If you're adventurous you can examine the spring and check for this. Pop the end cap off the spring barrel (sometimes the end cap is held in place by a spring type clip). Again, don't pull the mainspring out, not even a little. If the mainspring has slipped off the outer arbor, ie the arbor on the barrel, you're probably out of luck. If the mainspring has slipped off the inner arbor, ie the arbor in the center of barrel, you can try wiggling the spring or reforming the end with a pair of plyers. If you have multiple mainsprings it's often impossible to view the inner mainspring without removing the outer one, so again you may be out of luck.
Once in a blue moon you run into a mainspring that has crystallized with age and become weak, or a mainspring that a prior owner has cut down and annealed. If this is the case you will have to replace the mainspring.
Thumping and crunching sound from motor
Once in a while a motor will make a horrible deep thumping sound as it plays. This sound will usually cause a sudden surge of adrenalin in the listener, but the Victrola will blithely continue playing as if nothing untoward ever disturbed its performance. The sound will be repeated at random intervals. This problem is known as spring let-down, and is caused by the old, dry caked-up grease on the mainspring. The spring was originally greased to keep it from sticking to itself as it winds down. Sometimes the grease will break up if the machine is played a lot, but the only certain cure is to remove and regrease the mainspring, a big job.
I get a lot of Victrola repair correspondence from people who tell me that their spring is "wound too tight," but as the mainspring was designed to be wound this would seem to be in the nature of an oxymoron. If your motor is binding I would look for dirt in the motor, a bad gear in the gear train, or a misalignment between the worm and the turntable drive gear, assuming your motor is the type that uses a worm. More on worming your Victrola in the governor discussion.
Motor runs down all at once
I'm assuming here that your mainspring is good, but that everything just sort of goes whrrrrrrrrrrr after you wind it up. I'd look for either a bad gear or a worn or misadjusted turntable drive gear if your motor is of the type that uses a worm. The other possibility for a Victrola repair is that someone has removed the governor, or the governor weights.
Regulating the speed - the governor
Click to enlarge
On almost every type of Victrola the speed is regulated by a mechanical governor. The governor consists of (A) a governor shaft and (B) a collar with small springs, with lead weights screwed to middle of each spring. The collar is affixed to the governor shaft so that the springs and weights fly out as motor speed increases. Some kind of yoke with a leather brake usually engages the collar to limit speed. The usual problem with a governor assembly is that one or more governor springs break, or weights fly off, causing the governor to run erratically. The governor springs are held in with very tiny screws, and typically very tiny washers. I usually work over something like a plastic pan so as not to lose the tiny components. It usually takes a great deal of swearing to get the little screws in just right. Be sure to replace the weights and springs in matched sets.
There should be just the slightest amount of free play in the governor shaft. Most machines will have bushings that you can loosen slightly to adjust the free play.
On most motors that emulate Victor Victrolas a turntable drive gear is attached to the turntable shaft. An endless screw, more colorfully referred to as the worm, engages the turntable drive gear. The drive gear is usually adjusted so that it slightly more than kisses the worm, which is not considered indecent behavior in the case of a Victrola. Turntable drive gears, at least brass Victor turntable drive gears, have been known to wear out from this activity (replacements are available). If the drive gear is badly worn the motor may appear to run down all at once, but the usual sympton of this Victrola repair is rough idling and clunking. You can cut down the noise a bit by smearing a big daub of Vaseline on the drive gear.
II Upperworks repair
Tone arm and bracket repair
Genuine Victor Victrola tone arms aren't usually troublesome, but many off-brand machines used pot metal tone arms. In many cases the design of these tone arms was unique to the machine. Since pot metal is not repairable the only choice you have is to marry your machine to a tone arm from a different company.
Pot metal brackets are also not repairable, but in the case of certain Victor and Columbia machines swelling and cracking are so common that a few replacement parts are available. You can order replacement elbows for many Columbia Grafonolas, and replacement brackets for many Orthophonic Victrolas, from Norman and Janyne Smith.
Reproducers vary in design and quality. In general, the reproducer consists of a shell which houses a mica (later aluminum) diaphram. A vibrating bar and needle chuck assembly was usually attached to the shell, and was screwed into the center of the mica diaphram. Some reproducers, like those in the Orthophonic Victrola, were very complex employing tiny ball bearings and such, and are almost impossible to repair, but many reproducers can be adequately rebuilt with a little effort. I have posted some images of a disassembled Victor Exhibition reproducer below. Your reproducer, of course, may be a little different. Warning: if your machine has a pot metal reproducer stop right here and do not disassemble the reproducer. It's possible you may shatter the reproducer. If you have a quality, non-pot metal reproducer like a Victor Exhibition or a Victrola No. 2 then you can continue reading about this Victrola repair.
Click to enlarge
The most common problem with reproducers is that the gasketing dries up and becomes stiff. You should try to disassemble your reproducer as much as possible in order to replace both the inner and outer gasketing with new supple material from the parts supplier. Carefully pick away at the old gasketing using something like a jeweler's screwdriver, taking care not to penetrate the mica. If you can't get at the inner gasketing at least replace the outer gasketing, it will make a world of difference.
If you have a busted diaphram look very hard at the interior side of your reproducer, at the center where the vibrating bar hits the mica. There is usually a tiny screw here that fastened through the mica. The little screw assembly was often tacked down with stick shellac as a final precaution; you may have to scrape away the old dirt and shellac on the screw in order to clean out the slot. I usually work over a small plastic pan so I don't lose this screw. You can buy a new piece of mica from the parts suppliers.
The reproducer will usually have some sort of additional vibrating bars or springs in the needle chuck, and was tuned by alternately tensioning these springs until it sounded just right.