Thanks, Dan! That 51J4 is a beauty. I’m always amazed at the price Collins equipment fetches at auctions and even at Hamfests. You’re hard-pressed to find anything under $800 and rare units (like the 51J4 above) sell for so much more.
Someday, I’d like to add a Collins R-390A to my collection, but first I need to make room for it and start saving! My buddy, Charlie (W4MEC) has rebuilt several R-390s and I’ve no idea how he does it. The tuning mechanism alone is one amazing (and complicated) piece of engineering! Charlie loves a good challenge, though, and he’s certainly brought a few R-390s back into full service.
Many thanks to former VOA correspondent and noted DXer, Dan Robinson, for the following guest post:
A Late Summer Visit to Howard Mills’ Radio Restoration
The end of summer is a wistful time, as we begin to mourn the passage of warm days and anticipate the arrival of autumn.
For those of us in love with shortwave, even in these waning days of HF broadcasting, August brings changes in propagation that herald the approach of improved reception, thoughts of getting antennas in shape, and preparing receivers for the new DX season.
It’s also a time when Hamfests are winding down for the year — for me, it’s still great fun to attend these and see what equipment is available.
A few months ago, I and fellow Washington, DC area SWL Dave Malick took the opportunity to visit a couple of Hamfests. At one of these, in Berryville, VA, I ran across someone who over the years has become somewhat of a legend in the field of radio restoration — Howard Mills.
Howard lives in rural West Virginia, at a point about equidistant from Harper’s Ferry and Sheperdstown. That’s about an hour or so from DC and the immediate Maryland suburbs. From DC, you drive out Rt 270 to Frederick, Maryland and then up Route 15 and 340.
It’s beautiful country — on the way you pass through small towns, past farms, and in late summer, roadside stands selling huge ears of corn and about every type of vegetable, along with peaches and apples of every type and size.
Back in the late 1990’s I first became aware of Howard Mills when I brought my Collins 51J4 to him for refurbishing. Howard is one of the few persons remaining in this country capable of going through classic tube receivers from top to bottom.
A visit to Howard is an experience everyone should have at least once in a lifetime. Restoration activities take place in the lower/ground level of his home.
Outside there are some amazing antennas, long wires, and beams which support both his amateur radio and receiver activities.
Under a porch, covered in tarps, are some of his latest equipment and parts acquisitions, from thousands of tubes to some of the rarest radios and transmitter items one may ever see.
Inside, you find a wonderland of receivers. You name it, Howard has it. In racks, there are specialized Beckman 51J4s, SP-600s, AR-88s and R-390/As, Eddystones, and others. In another room, you see some of the most beautiful, and collectible and valuable, American and foreign-made radios dating back to the earliest days.
On tables in one portion of the basement of Howard’s place, you find several R-390s in various stages of refurbishment. One, he notes (probably among his “keepers” ) was found still new in its original crate (how I would love to have that one!).
On the day Dave and I visited, the purpose was to pick up one of the most beautiful R-390s I have ever seen — a Capehart that was refurbished by Howard in 2007 and placed in a custom cabinet, complete with an easy-left-off top, similar to the HQ-180 design. This black beauty is now sitting in my shack at home.
Howard has been at it for many decades, as I said. A conversation with him is a voyage through radio history, punctuated by references to a range of major radio manufacturers. He clearly loves what he does, though one wonders how much longer he will be at it.
Howard emphasizes by the way that his work is in restoring TUBE radios — he doesn’t get into solid state. There are a few well-known receivers in his place — I noticed an ICOM IC-R72 and a JRC NRD-535– but most of what you see are the classics that we have all come to know and love.
His primary specialty appears to be the 51J series. A link to him on the Collins site notes that his main focus is on A line equipment, J series, and 32V series, but he is certainly capable on a number of models, including as I saw, HQ-180s and AR-88s (http://www.collinsradio.org/howard-mills/)
I was able to take some photos of Howard’s operation and offer them to SWLing Post readers here. At this point, Howard remains in business. He has had customers from all over the U.S. and I assume around the globe.
For each refurbishing job, Howard provides an extensive print out of every single modification and component replacement he does, along with the results of sensitivity and calibration tests done for each set.
Please do note that Howard makes clear that basically as long as it takes him to refurbish a radio — is as long as it will take. If you give him one of your radios, you basically agree to it being with him for several months if not longer. He does have a backlog.
Things like sandblasting front panels for R390s (I am not certain to what extent he does this himself or out-sources this particular aspect) also takes time. And the detail with which he approaches a breakdown of an R390/A, evidenced by the sets I saw in process, is quite extraordinary and time-consuming.
Howard gets mostly superb reviews from those who have used his services. If you look him up on the Internet, and he has time for you to visit, it’s an experience you will always remember, though it’s not that I would suggest a crowd descend on him.
Hope everyone enjoys the photos — I had intended to get this article to Tom much sooner than October. Keep in mind, of course, that though Howard is one of the last to do this kind of work, there are a few others, including Chuck Rippel in Virginia.
We are indeed lucky to have anyone still doing this work. We know they do it not just as a business, but out of a love for this wonderful old equipment.
Many thanks, Dan, for taking us on this virtual tour of Howard Mills’ collection and workshop!
Your Capehart R-390A is absolutely gorgeous; Howard, no doubt, brought it back to mint status through loving, considerate restoration. What a great addition to your collection, Dan.
On Tuesday afternoon, I made a pilgrimage the to the National Capital Radio and Television Museum in Bowie, Maryland, USA. The museum is located in a modest and beautiful historic house on the corner of Mt. Oak and Mitchellville Roads in Bowie.
Museum Curator and volunteer, Brian Belanger, kindly gave me a private tour of the museum collections (the museum is closed on Tuesdays).
Many thanks to Brian for taking time out of his day for the tour, and for allowing me to take some photos for the SWLing Post!
The museum has a number of display rooms with radios broadly grouped by style and decade. The first room offers examples of some of the earliest radios produced–including the venerable crystal radio (below).
[Click photos to enlarge.]
Like Brian, numerous volunteers work to keep the collections in working order. This isn’t a place where vintage radios come to die; they actually come to life here.
Even examples of some of their earliest radios are on the air and can be tuned to local and international stations.
This RCA “portable” (below), housed two batteries on either side of the center faceplate. Note the ad on the wall above–a couple enjoy the RCA as they recline on a beach.
Speakers of the day were pretty amazing, too–check out this hand-painted 1927 Air Chrome Double Cone Speaker, below.
The museum also has an extensive collection of studio and off-air recordings that can be played over an AM carrier throughout the building.
By the late 1920s and early 1930s, radio manufactures built gorgeous console radios, features in the living rooms and parlors of many lucky homes.
This E.H. Scott All-Wave 23 console (above and below) sported not only twenty-threee vacuum tubes, but a large, robust internal speaker. Radio collectors consider the All-Wave 23 to be one of the finest performing radios of the vacuum-tube era.
The museum also features the Zenith 12-S-232 tabletop radio with working shuttle dial–a futuristic band-switching mechanical wonder with a stunning dial.
A number of tabletop and portable radios that span the decades have found their homes in this museum. No doubt many SWLing Post readers cut their teeth on these classics!
I love the design of the Garod Model 5A2–wow! And I’m sure many kids of the fifties wished they had an official Hopalong Cassidy AM radio (below).
The museum, of course, also houses a large number of classic televisions.
Radio stations and benefactors have also donated many items used in the industry, both in broadcast and retail.
Brian was also kind enough to take me to the building, next door, where they repair radios and store others for eventual rotation into the collection.
Museum volunteers also teach radio repair and restoration classes.
The number of classic ham radios, home brew receivers and transmitters was simply amazing. Indeed, I felt like a kid in a candy shop!
By the end of the tour, I had decided to become a member of the National Capital Radio and Television Museum. Even though I live a few states away, I like knowing that my membership funds not only help preserve vintage radios and televisions, but also provide me members-only access to many of their scanned archives. Click to view a full list of benefits for a modest $25 membership.
Again, many thanks to Brian Belanger for the amazing tour of this wonderful museum! Brian, I’ll be back next year…