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Antique Phonograph News
Canadian Antique Phonograph Society


Summer 2017

Winter Spring Summer Autumn
Crap-O-Phones: Repairing, Rebuilding, or Reconstructing (?) “The Crap-O-Phone”
by Mike Dicecco


Even Merlin suspects this is not an original Victor!

It all started at my office one day. I work in a home and auto claims department and had one of our vendors come in for a meeting; we congregated at my desk. Sami is an accident reconstruction engineer and his company can do some amazing calculations and predictions based on twisted auto wreckage and highway debris.

At my cubicle I have a few tell-tale signs that I belong to the phonograph-collecting world (a gramophone pencil sharpener, a ceramic jukebox, a 78 RPM & 45 RPM record and a Blue Amberol cylinder are dead giveaways!). During his visit, Sami suddenly noticed the little gramophone-shaped sharpener and proudly said "I have one of those!" (the artefacts/bait had worked again!).

He proceeded to tell me how he had acquired his machine: his brother is an engineer and was in Egypt doing an assignment. He took a picture of himself in an antique shop, sent it to Sami and in the background was an old gramophone with a large horn. Sami was very excited and told his brother that he really wanted it. The talking machine was purchased for 300 Egyptian Euros which converted to about $60 CDN and was taken home on the airplane by Sami’s brother. It was a very thoughtful gift from one brother to another.

Sami explained how the gramophone definitely appeared to be an original because it was bought in an antique store, had a picture of "HMV" & Nipper on it and even came with a 78 RPM record. It must have been genuine because it was not working right either - the sound was way too fast. Sure sounded like it could be an old British-manufacture gramophone. But the more I thought of it, the more I started to have my doubts. When I asked what colour the horn was (bright brass) I figured it must be a reproduction.


BEWARE THE CRAP-O-PHONE!
(Image courtesy of Mainspring Press: http://www.mainspringpress.com/crapo.html)

A couple of weeks later, when the machine was brought to me for repair, it was obvious upon initial inspection that this was indeed a "crap-o-phone". I’ve never had the pleasure (or more like misfortune) of working on one of these contraptions, but it meant a lot to him, so I agreed to give it a shot. What I figured would be a small adjustment ended up taking weeks to complete.

Sami explained that he and his wife (both in their 30s) were great fans of big band music. He had even proposed to her on the dance floor while a swing band played Glenn Miller’s Moonlight Serenade! It would mean so much to them if they were able to get this gramophone working properly.

For those of you new to this hobby, I’ll give a brief overview of Crap-o-phones. Most of them are assembled in India, although apparently China has started producing them too. The entire machine is made of poor-quality reproduction parts, with the exception of the motor, which is usually taken from an old portable. The units are sold everywhere and sadly the sellers often try to pass them off as an "antique" to unsuspecting buyers.

A quick search of e-Bay showed plenty of configurations and asking prices, usually in the $125 to $500 range. There’s even a supplier on e-Bay (through China) that sells replacement parts for them. The quality is pathetic when compared to an original Victor, which it is loosely based on. Sadly, my experience showed that these machines are intended to be only a decoration, not something that would actually play music from a 78 RPM record.


Absolutely horrible tonearm tracking angle. This was one of the most challenging parts of the repair. Note also the raised rim of the turntable which would provide only a slipping and scuffing support to the outer rim of the record.

Initial Observations

Here are some of my observations on the quality (or lack thereof):

  • The entire unit is extremely light (15-20 lbs.?), as it is made from soft wood. The cabinet did have a nice mahogany-type colour painted on it with little fake Victor-inspired pillars in each corner. One pillar fell off after some handling.
  • The crank opening is drilled close to the top right of the cabinet and there is no escutcheon. I was left with the impression that the hole was a last-minute consideration (the rough wood fragmented opening on the interior of the cabinet was the tell-tale sign). It was apparent that the position of the crank opening was left until the final assembly so as to accept whatever motor happened to be available to fit into the cabinet (refer to photo).
  • The motor board has no support bracket to keep it open while working on the motor. The two hinges used for the motor board were heavily rusted, obviously being pulled from something else (hey, it saves money and makes it look antique!).
  • Even the crank was an obvious reproduction – what passed for the crank’s handle was made out of black plastic that was solidly pressed into place and never designed to rotate as the motor was being wound.
  • The platter was odd. It was covered in some thin black cloth material and had a crimped rim around the edge to hold it together (this crimped rim also provided a means for the brake to rub against). Unfortunately, the rim was raised so that when a record was placed upon it, the disc was actually sitting up on the raised metal rim and not on the platter felt. The end result is that there is no contact with, or support from, the felt while the platter is being turned: the only contact is with the crimped metal – any slippage on this crimping would certainly scuff the outer portion of the disc. This sort of defeats the purpose of putting cloth on the turntable!

  • Side view of the tonearm shows the crudely cast back bracket, with a machine screw holding it all together. Note that the soundbox is at such a poor setting that it would rub on the record (preventing the needle from contacting the disc).

    The back bracket and tone-arm were unfortunately the worst part of this forgery and had very poor quality. The bracket appeared to be crudely cast of pot metal and, instead of a pin (and spring) to hold the tone-arm in place, they used a long metal screw through the arm! I had to be very careful when working on or around it so as to not cause breakage as it appeared quite fragile (refer to photo).

  • The horn elbow was a paper-thin brassy material held together with solder. As I did not have the horn I’m not able to comment on its quality but there is no reason to suspect that it is any better than the rest of the unit.
  • The opening in the bracket was about ¼" too large for the tone-arm so that (coupled with the loose metal screw) caused the arm to heavily lean sideways as it tried to track a record. It was NOT perpendicular to the disc. This tone-arm set-up proved to be the hardest part to remedy.
  • There are no screws holding the motor board closed. The only part keeping it all together was the crank. The water decal on the front is quite deceptive with a nice picture of Nipper and a Victor stating "His Master’s Voice". This is obvious copyright infringement but probably hard to enforce in a third-world country.


Double-spring bed-and-plate motor (with no lubrication) appears to have come from an old portable. Note the badly rusty springs on the left side of the lid.

"You do not repair a Crap-o-phone — you re-engineer it!"

There were many issues encountered in trying to make this specimen play a record. Sometimes I had my doubts that the machine would ever be anything more than an ornament. Here is a list of problems that I encountered, along with my solutions:

  • MOTOR: The motor appears to be out of an old portable machine. It’s a two-spring bed-and-plate type of configuration that had seen absolutely no lubrication! It appears to have been degreased (for appearances) but was never re-greased afterward. It ran with a little vibration and would barely make it through one full 10" record, slowing down gradually toward the end. After lots of lubrication and use, and a little adjusting, its performance improved somewhat.
  • GOVERNOR: The initial problem with the machine was that "the record sounds like chipmunks", which meant that it was running way too fast. (Question: how can you tell if an Indian-music 78 RPM record is not at the right speed?) It appears that the friction material on the governor was not properly adjusted. Loosening the set-screw and re-positioning it did not give the proper speed so I had to bend the actual governor shaft so it would be closer to the governor itself. Now there was ample adjustment room to get it down to the proper speed. Ironically, this was the reason that the machine was initially brought to me, and was the easiest fault to correct.

    I wonder if the initial problem came from the manner in which the "factory" assembled it, or if the soft metal bracket was bent from use - I suspect the latter. We’ll never know for sure.

  • TONE-ARM: The biggest problem turned out to be the brass tone-arm and this required the greatest amount of work to correct what the "factory" did not do properly in the first place. The opening supporthole in the back bracket was about ¼" too large for the arm, thus allowing it to flop around as it tried to track a record. Excessive movement was in both the vertical and horizontal planes (not to mention the sound vibrations that would have never made it into the horn due to this excessive leakage).


    Crude hole drilled in the side of the cabinet for the crank. There is not even an escutcheon affixed.

    There were two cures for the tone-arm:

    1. the crude machine-screw that was used to hold the arm to the back bracket was too loose and could not be secured. Adding a bolt to lock it in place helped control some of the excessive play
    2. somehow the gap in the back bracket had to be taken up. I used a 1 ½" strip of copper- pipe strapping to fill this area, and held it in place with epoxy (see photo). The arm now moved smoothly and properly in all planes and did not sag over as a record was played. A dab of grease ensured that the arm did not bind to the opening in the bracket. The arm and soundbox were now more perpendicular to the record.

    I was quite proud of my solution which had the greatest impact on the end results. Nothing, however, could fix the horrible tracking angle error that was inherent in the original tone-arm design. This would be something that the owner would have to live with. Another issue with the tone-arm was its miniscule interior diameter which would certainly not allow much sound volume to transmit to the horn. These two issues could not be corrected unless the entire tone-arm was changed, and this was not an option (since a proper Victor tone-arm would cost more than the whole machine was worth – if it would even fit!)


  • Repaired: top of the tonearm looking inside. The copper strip takes up much of the slack and helps to correct the tonearm tracking angle greatly. It is still not perfect, but a huge improvement.

    SOUNDBOX: The reproducer is a very light affair, being made of tin (front and back) with an aluminum diaphragm. Engraved on it are the words "Sound Box. His Master’s Voice". The diaphragm was aluminum and actually did not sound that bad. Having a light soundbox soundbox also made it easier on the weak motor to make it to the end of a record (steel needles also lasted longer). This unit had two main problems:

    1. The hole for the needle was not deep enough. The end result was that the soundbox was lifted too high off the record which made the already bad tracking angle all the more pronounced. The solution was to use a small drill-bit to deepen the needle holder by about 1/8” so that the steel needle fit more fully into the needle-bar.

    2. The second issue had to do with the way the soundbox was attached to the skimpy tone-arm - it was only a weak press fit, held on by a flimsy rubber gasket. If the soundbox was positioned properly at the start of a record, it would slowly move out of position as the record played with the end result being that the reproducer body touched the record instead of the needle. The fix was to drill a hole through the flanged edge of the soundbox, tap threads into the hole and attach a screw to hold it in place on the tone-arm. A corresponding indentation was made in the tonearm to help ensure that it was kept in the proper location. Problem solved!

Conclusion

Getting this machine to play a 78 RPM record proved to be a much bigger challenge than I ever initially envisioned. It became clear that this "gramophone" was intended to be only a decoration and I doubt that it worked to any degree after leaving the "factory" (especially considering all the corrections I have listed above).


Repaired: the various tips described in the article resulted in a vastly improved tonearm tracking angle (with improved sound and less record wear). The soundbox is no longer rubbing on the record, and is firmly held in place. Success!

After working on this unit I was left with a new appreciation of the quality and workmanship that went into most "real"” antique gramophones – something that obviously cannot be economically duplicated today.

The original reported problem was that the speed was too fast (on the one Indian 78 that came with it). Correcting the speed was actually one of the easiest aspects of the repair. My friend Sami really wanted to hear some big band records on his prized "gramophone", so I took up the challenge and he was very happy with the results.

Is a "crap-o-phone" a piece of garbage that should never be bothered with in the first place? I don’t think so. I’m sure most non-collectors would balk at paying $1000 or more for a "real" Victor (or other brand) outside- horn gramophone (even though most of us at CAPS would probably have no trouble justifying it to ourselves, if not our wives).

For $60 Sami got a machine that is a conversation piece in his living room and he is now able to actually play some big band records which I provided. So I guess that these poor-quality knock-offs have value to some degree. I hope that some of my remedies may assist others in the future, should they have the misfortune of acquiring a Crap-o-phone (or repairing for someone else). Just please don’t ask me to work on another one!

(All photographs courtesy of the author)