Every once in a while I like to have fun restoring old equipment, and last weekend I finally got around to restoring an 1957 Vibroplex “Original” Bug. I bought it because it was inexpensive, unrestored and complete…and it was made the year I was born. And unlike me, it didn’t have modifications and missing parts. Here is what it looked like last week before restoration:
I realized very quickly the base needed re-chroming, but I didn’t want to pull it all apart and have it sitting as parts in a box for weeks while the base was being redone, I wanted to use it. As an additional thought on that issue, as busy as I can get, if a project sits in a box it often does just that…for a while. Bottom line: I bought a new base from Vibroplex. I’ll have the original “Original” base re-chromed eventually…maybe.
Some notes about getting a replacement base from Vibroplex: The quality is pretty good, but the base does not have the #8-32 tapped hole for the tuning switch assy. and I had to layout, drill and tap one. Also, the holes for all of the electrical contact posts are smaller than are the original, so the original fiber insulating shoulder bushings will not fit. You should buy the Vibroplex replacement bushings when you order the base. In addition, the holes pre-drilled for the Vibroplex label are the wrong diameter and in the incorrect place, at least for this 1957 vintage label. I don’t know when this was changed, but at least on my bug I had to drill two #50 holes (0.070″) in the old positions to mount the label.
I looked on line for Vibroplex restoration details and found W.R.Smith’s site, so I bought his book and polish. The book is very informative and reflects many years of experience, especially with the older pre-WWII Bugs. The polish does indeed work well, it’s formulation seems similar to another metal polish I have used with one big difference: the base fluidizing agent is oil, not water. As a result it stays liquid and doesn’t evaporate, so you can stay polishing longer. This is a great advantage if it is needed. One down side is the oily film it leaves, which as he states can be removed with baking powder or corn starch. One way or the other it is not a big issue.
A anyone who has refinished anything from an old car to old furniture knows: prep work prior to putting a new finish on is the key (CW pun intended). I used a Dremel tool with various buffs and the W.R. Smith polish on everything and got great results. On many pieces the finish wore through before the pits or tarnish was gone. I selectively plated pendulum parts and washers with nickel, and the electrical connecting straps on the bottom with a tin/zinc plate. I wanted the project to only take the one day, so I intentionally left a few parts in less-than-perfect, but looking-very-good condition.
W.R. Smith spends a lot of time describing nickel plating, which many people will not want to do. Coming from the optical disc industry I am used to nickel plating chemistries so it was not a problem. A decent alternative is offered by the Eastwood Company in their tin/zinc plating system. It is inexpensive enough, lasts a long time, and the resulting metal polishes very well. It will oxidize over time if not protected with a polish like the W.R. Smith product, but then again, so will nickel. It is softer than nickel, so it may not be the best choice for wear parts. Here is a picture of the unrestored bottom straps:
And with the new base, and polished, replated and repolished straps:
I wanted to use all of the original hardware, as it is part of the look of the unit, and a lot of it was cadmium plated. After some years, the cadmium plating will combine with atmospheric sulfur to form CdS, Cadmium Sulfide., which gives the hardware a dusty yellow-green finish. If you buff this CdS film hard enough it will come off…but it is not a good idea to breathe the resulting CdS dust, plus the appearance with the cadmium removed is incorrect and the hardware will rust. I decided to research a different procedure. There are various acidic urea compounds which are commonly used to convert silver sulfide (Ag2S) back to metallic silver, releasing an awful-smelling sulfurous gas in the process. One such compound which is readily available is Tarn-X. I was able to use this product successfully to reconvert the CdS to metallic cadmium with a lot of elbow grease and q-tips.
A good example of how the cadmium sulfide appears is shown in the following picture, look at the screw and spring as well as the trunnion pin:
And here they are after a thorough scrubbing with Tarn-X:
While I was in Tarn-X mode I also polished all four silver contact points, and this being the application it was designed for it worked very well. Expect to use a good amount of elbow grease and q-tips in the process! The contact points were heavily sulfided with a dense black layer:
After the cleaning with Tarn-X this is how they looked:
So in general, all tarnished parts were polished with a Dremel tool and buffs using W.R. Smith’s polish (highly recommended). Afterward they were assessed to see if they needed replating. Parts which were chromed initially were re-plated with nickel, which when polished and protected has a similar spectral reflectance. A quart of nickel plating solution (nickel sulfamate + acidic buffer and surfactant) is currently available from Krohn for $22 on eBay. Other parts for which a more flexible film was desired and which were not subject to wear were plated with a tin/zinc solution available from Eastwood. I would love to have the time to have done a perfect restoration as W.R.Smith performs so beautifully. In my case time was short, and the few parts I polished which still had imperfections were acceptable to me, I made sure they had a coating of polish to retard further corrosion.
The restored bug operates beautifully, and I refuse to answer any comments as to why I have the weights set for such a slow rate. The answer is twofold: although most bugs come with a 0.013-0.015″ thick mainspring, this particular bug came with a 0.018″ thick mainspring which gives it a minimum speed with the weights shown of ~25WPM. Also, and in advance to these naysayers (you know who you are, Jack): switching back and forth between a semi and fully automatic keyer takes a while to learn. Even for someone like me who learned how to send at 35WPM with a bug many years ago, before I built my first iambic keyer (using RTL logic ICs, built into a Ten-Tec magnetic keyer case, but that is another tale…).
At any rate, here is the Bug after a week’s planning and parts ordering, and then a full day’s resto work:
I really like the look of machines like this Vibroplex and my iambic keyer, however I live on a farm and it is dusty. I rapidly grow tired of cleaning precision tools like this with q-tips and cleaner, and trying to keep them dust-free. My solution (short of moving) is to use acrylic covers after a thorough cleaning. These covers will keep a keyer dust-free for a year while allowing paddle access, to me it is a good solution. If you don’t have a dusty location, count your blessings and enjoy your naked keyers, I cannot. I have had them custom made in the past, but Vibroplex offers one for a very reasonable price which is custom fitted to the machine, so I opted to purchase it. When I received it I was pleased by the joinery and appearance (although I thought it could have been 1/2″ shorter). Here is the completed, restored Bug with it’s dust cover: