Vintage video

Anyone who was around in the 1980s will most likely remember the video format war between VHS and Betamax. But did you know there were other formats around too? One of these lost formats was U-matic, which has a special place in history for being (possibly) the first cassette-based video system, introduced by Sony way back in 1969 and arriving in the UK around 1971.

U-matic was originally a consumer format. However the high price of the machines was prohibitively expensive for most people, so it would be at least another decade before VCRs were a common site in many homes.

One of the benefits of U-matic over later formats was a surprisingly good picture quality. This led to the format being adopted by television stations, especially in news departments, giving rise to the system we now commonly know as electronic news gathering.

The machine in the picture above is a Sony pro-sumer grade unit dating from the mid-70s. I got it because I have some U-matic master tapes that originated from Elstree Studios and I wanted to know what was on them. So I spent weeks scouring E-Bay before a suitable machine appeared.

When it arrived the VCR was in a fairly poor condition. One of it’s plastic feet was missing and when powered up not much seemed to happen. A motor started up inside and an internal light came on but that was about it. So an evening was spent freeing off all the moving parts that had jammed up through years of inactivity. This in itself is not easy. The presence of precision recording heads and delicate sensors means that squinting everything with penetrating oil is a definite no no. So every moving part was made to move again by carefully working it backwards and forwards.

Over the period of a few hours the machine gradually came back to life. First the eject mechanism was sorted. Next came the tape loading system that wraps the tape around the head drum. After a whole evening’s work the mechanics are now working as they should. That is as far as I’ve got for now. The next stage will be to couple it up to a TV to see if there is any kind of picture.

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Fixing wood finishes

One type of repair we sometimes get asked about is how to restore wooden furniture. Parts might be loose or broken, but most often the problem is some sind of mark in the finish, such as a scratch or a ring left by a cup or glass. There are various ways of dealing with these marks and a successful repair often hinges on choosing the right method for that particular case.

The finish on furniture can be many different things, all of which respond differently to treatment. Also the wood itself might be hardwood, softwood or engineered alternatives such as chipboard or ply.

Chipboard usually has some kind of surface applied to it to make it look like a natural wooden board. If you’re lucky the surface will be a thin veneer of natural wood, but modern furniture can have a paper or plastic overlay with a wooden design printed onto it.

The photo above shows a shelf from a 1960’s sideboard. Although it looked like real wood at first glance, it’s actually chipboard with a wood veneer. The problem was a lot of white ring marks, left by wet cups or glasses. These marks were most likely caused by water, but some ring marks, especially on tables, can be caused by alcohol eating away the polished surface.

As I wasn’t sure what caused these marks, I decided to sand down the surface and start again. This is quite easy with solid wood, but with chipboard you have to be very careful not to destroy the thin surface veneer.

Once the shelf was sanded, it was time to apply a new finish. You could wax it or even French Polish it. However as it’s not a particularly valuable piece and it needed to be functional and water proof, I simply painted it with a high gloss yacht varnish. Most of this will soak in during the first coat, but a very light sanding once dry and then a second coat will give a beautiful shiny finish which is almost impossible to achieve any other way.

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Clock repairs

Inspired by the clock repairs on TV’s ‘The Repair Shop’ just recently, today I decided to finally take a look at a clock taht’s been sitting on the side in my kitchen for quite a while now. I bought it a few months ago and although I got it to tick, it had a curious problem with the striking, which resulted in it only striking once at the top of every hour.

I knew I had to get the mechanism out of the case, so first I removed the pendulum. Next the hands came off and finally 6 screws from the inside which held the brass mechanism to the wooden case. I could then remove the whole mechanism in one piece from the back.

It didn’t take long to spot the problem. The entire mechanism was filthy, with lots of old oil that had gone hard and sticky gumming things up. On part thatw as well and truely stuck was a lever that drops down onto a snail cam to count the correct number of chimes for each hour. This was stuck in the raised position with the result that there was only a single chime each hour, no matter what the time actually was.

With a bit of careful cleaning and new lubrication with light clock oil, the mechanism finally loosened up. After putting everything back together the clock happily chimed seven times at 7pm, fittingly right in the middle of tonight’s episode of The Repair Shop!

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Fixing the unfixable: Restoring broken plastic

Once a piece of plastic is smashed that’s it, right?
Well… Actually… Wrong!
Andy recently restored this telephone, which arrived in the condition seen in the first photo. He takes up the story of the restoration below:

The damage to this phone occured in the post as a result of very poor packaging by the sender. Old telephones should never be sent with the handset resting ‘on the hook’ and it is the handset bashing against the maid body casing that likely caused this breakage.

Luckily the broken parts were still in the box, so it was possible to retrieve most of the bits that had been smashed. As this is a later GPO casing made of ABS plastic, I used my own system of ‘chemical welding’ to stick the parts back together rather than gluing. This has the advantage of not adding a foreign material (ie glue) to the joint, so it is often possible to make the repair as strong as the surrounding material and also completely invisible.

The first stage in the process involves identyfying all the broken pieces and making sure the edges of the parts are clean. It’s best to try the pieces together for fit before welding begins.

The welding process itself involves slightly melting the edges of the broken pieces using a chemical process to make them just sticky enough to bond together without the use of glue of any kind. The chemicals then evaporate and the plastic returns to a solid state, making the joint as solid as a single plastic piece. At this stage the joint lines can still be seen, along with any areas where the pieces of broken plastic could not be found. Luckily, in this case I only had one large missing piece and a few very small chips, as you can see from the photo below.

The next stage is to use a plastic solution the same colour as the case. I always keep pieces of broken ABS and just happened to have some parts of a broken dial surround which were an exact match. The idea is to desolve into the solution to make a sticky, almost paste-like consistency. This is brushed into the cracks with a stiff artists brush. the paste will fill the cracks and any small missing chips. The aim is to over fill the cracks slightly so they can be sanded back to a flush surface. Once the sanding is done, more plastic solution can be brushed into any areas that are still found to be low. Sand again and the cracks should have disappeared, although the surface will be dull and scratched.

At this stage I happened to start investigating the telephone’s back plate and internal mechanism and just happened to find the missing piece of plastic sticking out from under one of the bell gongs. So I did have all the bits after all! This final piece was welded into place and the joints filled using the same process as before.

The whole surface is now wiped over with plastic melting chemicals on a clean lint-free cloth. Again this liquifies the surface slightly and helps to remove and remaining imperfections, although the surface will still be slightly rough. This can be cured by wiping with a different and slightly weaker chemical mix which is  effectively equivalent to using a very fine grade of sandpaper.  This will proabbly leave a white residue, but this can be removed by using an abrasive polish next such as ‘T-Cut’ or ‘Brasso’. Once polished the finish should be nice and shiny as below, with little or no evidence of the joints between the once broken pieces.

The photo above shows the repair almost finished. As you can see, there is very little evidence of any restoration taking place. There is however a slight colour mis-match between the area that has been restored and the rest of the casing. This is because ABS plastic yellows slightly over time, so the grey case takes on a slightly brownish hue. Where the repair was sanded also had the side effect of restoring the original colour, so the rest of the case would need polishing using our in-house developed colour restoration process. There is also a nibbled edge to the case still evident which was later rebuilt with a stiffer version of the plastic solution and sanded to shape.

The fional picture above shows the finished repair, with the nibbled edge rebuilt and he whole case polished to make it all colour match.

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The Baby Belling

So it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. “Come and take a look at this cooker I’ve been given and I’ll do the cooking part.” It sounded like a fair deal to me, so off I went, toolbox in hand.

On arrival a very nice surprise greeted me. This was no modern second hand tin cast-off of a cooker but was instead a properly built Baby Belling, beloved if bedsit dwellers everywhere.

Now I’ve seen these little two-ring electric cookers before. Many a lunch-time jacket potato was done in one at a place I used to work. But what I hadn’t realised until today, when I took one apart for the first time, was how easy they are to work on. The top just lifts up on a hinge, three screws give access to the connections for the rings and removing a couple more screws reveals the switch contacts.

The problem was the left ring was continuously switched on. But looking at the switch contacts soon revealed a contact that wasn’t releasing when turned to the off position. This should activate an over centre spring to break the contacts, but this wasn’t happening. But joy of joys, the spring mechanism was adjustable! A quick turn of a small brass bolt and the switch was working properly again. 5 minutes to reassemble everything and the cooker, which had been gifted to a friend, was fully working again and ready for another 30 odd years of service.

The only part of the restoration left to do is to clean it!


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We’re back with our first Repair Cafe of 2017 this Saturday (Jan 28th) at Heeley City Farm. As usual, you can bring anything along for repair. As long as you can get it to us, we will have a go at fixing it.

Quite a number of our fixers own vintage sewing machines. Here's one thatw as rescued by Andy and repaired a few months ago.

Quite a number of our fixers own vintage sewing machines. Here’s one that was rescued by Andy and repaired a few months ago.

Although we do mend everything from shoes to furniture, for some reason lots of people seem to think we only do electrical stuff, which is simply not true. Yes, we can take a look at your toaster or inspect your iron, but we can do lots of other things as well. A good example of this is the vintage sewing machine seen here. It was rescued by yours truly a few months ago and was in a terrible state when it arrived. But after a good soak in penetrating oil and a gentle tap here and there it was unseized and mechanically restored to full working order.

Just because something is old does not mean it’s useless. The Repair Cafe uses vintage sewing machines for good practical reasons. They’re easily portable, usually coming with their own wooden carrying case. They don’t rely on electricity to work, so we can take them anywhere and don’t have to find power sockets. They are also a really good example of how things should be built to last and be easily repairable.

So if you’ve got some antique machine of some kind gently rusting away in the loft or the corner of the garage, then bring it along to the Repair Cafe this Saturday and we’ll help you give it a new lease of life!

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Repair Cafe TOMORROW – November 26th

Just a quick reminder that it’s Repair Cafe time again tomorrow. As usual we’ll be at Heeley City Farm, but NOT in our normal building. You should find signs on site to direct you to our temporary accomodation, but you can also ask any of the farm staff who will be able to point you in the right direction.

As usual you can bring absilutely anything to be repaired. We don’t guarantee being able to fix it, but we’ll have a good try! Around 75% of the items brought in usually end up either fixed on the spot or the owner is advised of any new parts required.

So why not come over? We’ll be there from 10am onwards.

Just a few of the things we can repair can be found here.

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Old Telephones

Here at Repair Sheffield we’re big on old stuff. Retro is cool and while reproductions are ok, the genuine original is always better. Here we take a look at old telephones. Where to find them, how to restore them and how they can still be used today.

Two 'modern telephones' as the GPO called them. The one on the left dates from 1959 and is still working 57 years later!

Two ‘modern telephones’ as the GPO called them. The one on the left dates from 1959 and is still working 57 years later!

Nearly everyone can remember the old dial telephones. They have been a constant part of our everyday lives for well over 100 years. From the ‘candlesticks’ of the early 1900s, through the black bakelite phones of the 1940s and 50s, to the multi-coloured 700 series of the 60s and 70s to the modern plastic devices of today. But what you may not know is that the technology of the telephone is still essentially the same as it was in the late 1800s and those very early phones will still work quite happily today.

Old telephones are quite easy to come by. Brightly coloured examples from the 60s and 70s can still occasionally be found at car boot sales and in charity shops, while older bakelite and candlestick models turn up from time to time in antique centres. The availability is a bit of a historic numbers game. In the early 1900s far less people had phone lines than in the 1970s, so far less telephones were made to meet the demand. The later you get, the more were made and so more survive. But having said that a 1920s candlestick type phone can still be yours for less than £200, which is only about 4 times the price of a modern plastic replica.

The beauty of old telephones is they were built to last. Prior to the mid-1980’s you didn’t buy a telephone, you rented it, together with the line, from the General Post Office (G.P.O.) Telephones were seen as simply functional, so the longer they would last in service without repair or replacement the better. Only in the 80’s could you start buying telephones to plug in yourself and that is when the ‘throw-away’ mentality took hold. But even then many subscribers (as the GPO’s customers were called) stuck with their faithful old dial phones, some of which had even then been in service for well over 20 years. ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t mend it’ was the mentality of the GPO, so they a;ways stuck with a design as long as they could if it worked.

The phone from 1959 with it's plastic cover removed. It's a simple job to re-wire the terminals on the right for modern working with the plug & socket system.

The phone from 1959 with it’s plastic cover removed. It’s a simple job to re-wire the terminals on the right for modern working with the plug & socket system.

The old dial type phones we see today are usually the 7xx series, first introduced in 1959 The first of these was the 706 desk phone, which was followed by an updated version known as the 746 in 1967 and a ‘plug & socket’ version the 8746 in the early 1980s.

Many 706 types still survive today. As I sit typing this, one of the very first, dating from 1959, sits on my desk and is still working perfectly 57 years later! With the event of the plug and socket system, originally known as ‘inphone’ in the 1980s, the wiring in our houses changed slightly, so old telephones do need a small conversion to fit a modern plug and switch some wiring around inside the phone. But the conversion is simple and can easily be done in less than 10 minutes.

So if you have an old dial telephone gathering dust in the loft or if you’ve found one at the local car boot sale, bring it along to our Repair Cafe and we’ll tell you all about it’s history, check it over, and get it working ready for the next 50 years!

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Repair Cafe this Saturday, 28th May.

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It’s our Repair Cafe today at Heeley City Farm. Remember, as it’s Easter weekend we’re in the energy centre, not our usual place.

Doors open at 10am and last admissions with new items to be fixed is at 3.30pm.

You can bring along anything that needs fixing but we also have a theme of gardening today, so will have plenty of garden experts on hand.

See you later!

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