Restoring a 1920’s Antique Phonograph Horn

29 Sep


While some women spend their pre-baby nesting time painting the nursery or begging the husband to build the crib, I spent mine trying to restore a century old piece of musical history and begging my husband to build me some sort of player that would hook up to my iPhone.

Ever since I was little my tastes were… different. While everyone was jamming out to Spice Girls in elementary school, I was listening to bluegrass and big band. Long before the advent of MP3 players, when girls wanted CD players for Christmas, I wanted a phonograph horn.

This has literally been a desire of mine for going on two decades now. I blame the opening of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom ride at Disneyland. Listening to Glenn Miller’s Moonlight Serenade in the queue through the authentic crackle of a phonograph horn made me realize that a CD player- and later an MP3 player – simply wouldn’t do. The world just sounds much better with your head stuck in a phonograph horn.

The problem is, horns are old. And rare. And they are therefore quite expensive. The times that I have had it in my budget to purchase one I’ve held off, because buying a horn just commits to the follow up purchase of buying the player, which then leads to the endless purchases of the turn of the century cylindrical wax records – most of which cost $10 to $15 per song for working pieces. All in all, my dream phonograph set up would run me going on $3000, give or take a few hundred.

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Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to find the old wax records, and I’d scoop them up as I found them – working or not – intent on one day owning my antique musical masterpiece. I’ve currently got a nice little collection that I can do absolutely nothing with at the moment so… yay me?

Anyway, all of this is to say, I was tickled pink when in October of last year, while browsing the (mostly) junk of the local swap meet in Hanford, California, I stumbled upon a 1920’s Atwater Kent Model L phonograph horn laying like a piece of rubbish among old car parts, rusted tools and scrap metal. I tried to keep my cool (though my dad, who was there, tells me I failed miserably) and asked how much. The guy, who could barely speak English, shrugged and asked for, uhh, $10? I whipped the money out so fast I felt like a ninja on a shopping spree. Then I kept shouting at people through the horn for the next few days.


So, a little bit about my horn! There were only seven or eight different Atwater Kent phonograph horn models made at the turn of the century. The horn brand itself is very rare, but unlike an Edison or a Victrola, Atwater Kent was kind of like the “Walmart brand” of phonograph horns in the era, so they don’t retain as high a value as others on the market. While older wooden and hand painted Edisons can fetch upwards of $2000 for the horn alone, my little horn, in the shape it’s in, would probably only fetch somewhere between $150 to $200.

So! Once we got settled into our new home in Pensacola, I set about pestering my handsome husband on getting to work restoring my phonograph horn. My precious. My own.

The 15 inch wide horn, when brand new, featured jet black crackle paint finish. There were a number of ways to go about restoring it. We could try to make it look like it did when it was brand new. Or we could stop the rust and fancy it up, still retaining it’s obvious “old antique” look and charm. I opted for the latter.




The horn is cheaply made, constructed of pot metal. The problem with pot metal is that after 85 years or so, the metal degrades and the various parts literally become fused together. When researching the restoration process for this particular model, I’ve run across several warnings that when disassembled, the pot metal corrodes and the horn will literally swell up and warp and in some places even crumble. So we couldn’t really take it apart for thorough cleaning. We had to work with it as is – focusing on removing what rust we could, restoring / enhancing the color and paint, and protecting from further rust and aging damage.

First, to deal with the rust:

Rust is created when metal and water come into contact. When the metal gets wet or moist, the water molecules react with carbon dioxide molecules that are present in the atmosphere. This reaction creates carbonic acid, which then weakens the chemical bonds of the metal. The metal starts to break down, or corrode. Corrosion is an electrochemical process – also known as rust. As the metal corrodes, the water molecules break down, which results in a free oxygen molecule. This oxygen molecule combines with the corroding metal to create a new compound. The new compound is an oxide. Iron becomes iron oxide and aluminum becomes aluminum oxide. There are different treatments for the different types of metal rust, but since pot metal is made up of multiple mystery scrap yard metals, an all-purpose rust cleanser was a must. There were a number of cleaning agents we could use to remove the rust from the horn, but we opted for CLR.

CLR is heavy duty enough to rinse away the majority of 100 years of grime, but gentle enough to not eat up our phonograph horn whole. It contained enough cleaning agents to cover our bases for the mystery metal elements making up the horn. CLR contains gluconic acid which dissolves mineral deposits. It also contains glycolic acid, which is used to penetrate the surfaces to get deep stains lifted and removed. And last but not least, it contains sulfamic acid which is designed to clean metal and remove rust.


After Jonathan gave the horn a nice scrub and a much needed bath, we let it air dry, then I set to work protecting it and restoring its color.

While the horn had a jet black crackle finish when brand new, I rather liked the aged, brownish antique quality it had taken on. So instead of stripping the paint and recoating it, we decided leave the original paint job as is, and apply a solid coat of warmed coconut oil. Coconut oil simultaneously darkens metals, cleans, and protects from future rusting by preventing oxidation.








After letting the horn dry (it took about a week for the slippery, glossy wet look to subside) it has taken on a beautiful dark black / brown crackle polish. Here are some examples of the finished product… though you only get a teaser glimpse, because my next blog post is gonna be about constructing the actual phonograph player! ^_^




2 Responses to “Restoring a 1920’s Antique Phonograph Horn”

  1. Suzi September 28, 2013 at 11:45 pm #

    How often will you have to reapply the oil? I mean, will it get old and sticky? It sure is pretty!!

    • John Hill December 2, 2013 at 4:13 pm #

      Actually That Is Not A Phono Horn, But An Atwater Kent Radio Horn. There Should Be A Base With The ‘Driver’ In It.

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