Using Fibre Needles

“Fibre” needles are made from hardened wood and come from two main sources, Bamboo and Thorn wood.

In the case of Bamboo needles the bamboo wood is split into a triangular cross-section and a slice taken off the end which leaves a point that can be used to play a single side. The needle can then be sharpened by taking another slice off the end of the bamboo. This can be repeated many times until the “needle” is too short to use. The slicing can be done with a sharp craft knife or blade, or one can use the specially produced cutters produced by HMV, Columbia and others. To use these triangular section needles, the sound box must have the appropriately designed triangular hole for the needle, as found on the HMV No.4 and 5 sound-boxes for example.

The Thorn needles are round in section and can be  re-sharpened using a piece of sandpaper or the specially produced sharpeners such as the “IM” models. These can be fitted into most sound-boxes including the earlier ones with a round hole.

In both cases the “Fibre” needles give a very soft tone and do not produce wear on the record. However they must be sharpened after each playing and well used 78s can wear them out quite quickly.


Caring For Your Gramophone

When you are not using your gramophone, always leave it wound up to some degree to keep some tension in the spring. If the machine is allowed to wind down completely (as some people recommend) the spinning turntable can act as a flywheel and the spring can unhook from the rivet on the edge of the spring barrel and may not re-engage when the motor is rewound.

Some 78s get dirty with age and can slow down the motor of your gramophone. This is often put down to weakness of the spring, but is often just drag caused by dirt. I find that cleaning the record surface with WD40 usually solves the problem like magic! I know some experts say that you can cause damage to some of the materials used to make certain 78s, but I have never found this to be so. Use very little WD40 and wipe off thoroughly before playing. You will see that the needle becomes clogged with the embedded grime which can easily be wiped off. Another bit of good advice is to use “soft-tone” needles which cause less drag and wear.

The motors from some of the early gramophones, especially those with single springs can appear to be weak and may struggle to play some records. Collectors must be accept some limitations on their performance. The main rules for successful results are:

  1. Use a clean record where possible
  2. Use a new needle, preferable a soft tone one and
  3. Wind up the motor fully

Replacing the mainspring in an HMV 101 motor

  1. Make sure the motor is fully run down.
  2. Remove the turntable circlip and lift off the turntable. Give the central spindle a sharp tap with a hammer to release if necessary.
  3. Remove the motor-board with motor attached by undoing the four screws at the corners of the motor-board. The front part of the motor-board will lift out easily.
  4. Remove the three small bolts that hold the casing around the motor and remove it .
  5. Remove the three  bolts holding the base-plate of the motor.
  6. Lift off the plate and check that a small ball-bearing is in place in the brass cup in which the main shaft sits. The main shaft sits on this when the motor runs. Put a drop of grease in the hole to ensure that the ball-bearing stays in place. Check also that the large washer is in place on the top of the mainspring barrel  and around the barrel pivot.
  7. Lift off the intermediate cog wheel, the washer and the spring barrel.
  8. Oil the governor unit well especially the end pivots and felt pad. Check that the brass plate is clean where the felt pad rubs. Check that the brass plate moves up and down easily on its shaft thus allowing the governor weights to move outwards and back.
  9. Pull out the winding cog from the base of the spring barrel.
  10. The  cover plate of the spring barrel is held in place by a circular retaining spring. Find where the two ends  of the spring meet and prise it off. I use a sharp screwdriver. You might have to hammer the screwdriver under the spring to prise it off.
  11. Lift off the cover plate. If necessary by introducing a punch through the far hole and tapping it with a hammer from underneath. The mainspring will be revealed!!
  12. Put the spring barrel in a vice, grip the centre of the mainspring with pliers and pull it out carefully. I usually cover it with a towel  while doing this to prevent the spring flying out.
  13. Note the direction of wind for the spring. The HMV 101 mainspring is wound clockwise. Release the new spring carefully by cutting the holding wire, wrapped tightly in a towel and let the spring uncoil slowly. If released too quickly the centre coil may open out too much and will not engage with the winding cog arbor later
  14. Still in the vice ( or similar- I use a jig I made up) with the rivet that holds the end of the mainspring at 9 o’clock, bend the end of the new spring with the hole slightly and locate it onto the rivet (not easy!) then wind in carefully using plenty of ordinary car grease. Keep the loose coil together as much as possible. Eventually the spring drops into place inside the barrel.
  15. Before you close up check that the winding shaft fits snugly into the small loop with the kink at the centre of the mainspring. A groove in the winding cog shaft locates with the kink and is held in place as the spring winds up.
  16. Make sure that the spring sits down as far as possible into the can so that the lid fits in leaving the groove into which the retaining spring will sit
  17. Grind off each end of the retaining spring slightly to make the ends meet squarely later. Put the spring back to hold the lid in place. I usually have to tap the end of the retaining spring with a punch to drive it back into position where the two ends meet. This is tricky and can take ages or might work first time.
  18. Re-assemble the motor in reverse order, mainspring. Intermediate cog. Then make sure that the large washer is on top of the mainspring barrel and that the ball-bearing is still in the brass cup in the top plate. Replace the top plate being careful to check that the intermediate cog shaft comes through. The top plate should sit down flat without rocking. Replace nuts and bolt, then the metal cover.

NOTE that in the earlier models of HMV 101 the spring barrel may be held together with small bolts around the edge. This barrel takes a smaller spring, but with an eye outer fixing and hub centre. In these barrels the spring is wound in ANTI-CLOCKWISE.

For the later  HMV Model 102 motor the method is much the same, but taking out the motor involves removing the whole of the motor-board. In early models of the 102, the motor may be removed from under the turntable without removing the whole motor-board. The rather annoying auto-brake mechanism has to be unbolted first, then the motor can be lifted out.


Cleaning the mainspring in an HMV 101 motor

I am often asked about servicing HMV motors that are running slowly. The usual cause is the graphited grease used in the spring barrel originally. Over time this tends to harden and stick the coils of the springs together so that they don’t uncoil smoothly when the motor is running. This can have the effect of making the spring appear weak, whereas a good clean will often do the trick. To deal with this, use the instructions above to remove the spring barrel and spring. You may find that the revealed spring is not broken, but locked into hardened grease.
Remove the spring as above. You will now need to scrape off the grease. I use a Stanley knife. Do the same for the grease in the spring barrel. I then clean off the residual grease using paraffin and coarse wire wool. The cleaned spring can then be replaced as a new one using plenty of ordinary car grease.

Some thoughts about sound-boxes

There has been a lot of discussion about the best sound-boxes to use on your gramophone. In general, of course, it is best to keep the sound-box that was produced especially for that machine. It enhances its value to have the original. However it is often interesting to try other boxes if they will fit onto the tone-arm you have.
While some tone arms, especially those for Columbia and HMV machines require specifically fitting sound-boxes, there are some sound-boxes that have a more flexible method of attachment and can be used on a number of different gramophones. I include among those worth trying the Meltrope III box and the one I consider to be the best of all, the “Orchorsol” sound-box. Both of these have flexible rubber connectors that can be tightened to fit a variety of tone arms Well worth trying if you can find them.

Observations about HMV 5A and 5B sound-boxes

Two of the best and most popular sound-boxes are to be found on HMV gramophones from the early 1930s, these are the models 5A and 5B. They are found on HMV gramophones like the 102, 104, 130, 145, 157, 163, 193, 203 and a few more. I have spent a great deal of time trying to restore these boxes and am now setting down some thoughts about problems that can occur.
1. The back-plate. These are made of a zinc alloy called “Pot-metal” or “Mazac” and the alloy swells with age resulting in fracturing of the metal especially around the top locating pin when an attempt is made to remove the sound-box from the tone arm. The swelling can even cause the front ring to split open. Evidence of this swelling is quickly found if an attempt is made to remove the back by unscrewing the four small brass bolts at the back. The bolts may shear off as they have been squeezed in position and it is then almost certain that the back-plate will not come off easily. It may still be possible to remove the back by tapping a Stanley knife blade between the back-plate and the front ring, working right around carefully.

2. The diaphragm. These are complicated aluminium units with slanted folding in the 5A and radial folding in the 5B versions. Folding the diaphragms increases the surface area helping to move more air as it vibrates producing sound. The needle-bar is attached to the main diaphragm via a “spider” which makes contact at six points (actually 12!) instead of the one central point in standard sound-boxes. This is supposed to find more modes of vibration on the diaphragm than the standard method. The diaphrams are supported in the sound-box by two narrow rings of felt. The main problems encountered are a) corrosion around the edge of the aluminium under the felt rings, b) the squashing of the spider back aginst the main diaphragm and c) loosening of the joints where the spider “feet” meet the diaphragm due to years of vibration. The corrosion problem is not easily solved although I have successfully glued a narrow aluminium ring around the perimeter with Araldite. Often despite considerable corrosion, these sound-boxes can still work surprisingly well and may be best left alone! If the spider has been squashed back onto the diaphragm it is often possible to prise it back into position with a small screw-driver and if the “feet” are loose you can re-secure them with superglue or tiny amounts of Araldite.

3. The needle-bar.  A very common problem that can have a dramatic affect on the performance of a sound-box is that the needle-bar, due to movement over years, can become pressed up against the front cover-plate. This can virtually stop the sound-box from working at all and easing the needle-bar downwards with a small screw-driver, so that it longer touches the cover can work like magic!

The needle-bar is supported between two pivots on the front of the sound-box and should be firmly held but not over tight as this can dampen the vibrations. Adjustments to this support should be done with great care as it is very easy to break the pivots off.

I have cooperated with an engineer to make replacement back-plates which can give these sound-boxes a new lease of life. They are made from quality aluminium alloy and have been designed to fit onto the tone-arm without the need for the standard rubber insert. The replacement back makes the complete sound-box much lighter and I find that they work really well.

A few more observations

Those mysterious clips on HMV gramophone motor-boards
I am often asked about metal clips that are found on HMV gramophones fom the late 1920s and early 1930s. clipclipclip
At that time HMV produced semi-permanent needles called “Tungstyle” needles in special slimline tins. These will fit into the clips which are too narrow for standard needle tins. Tungstyle needle tins were available for different tones and in different colours and are quite hard to find nowadays.

Needle-cut and Phono-cut records

Most of the 78s we come across are “Needle-cut” recordings in which the vibrations created in the grooves are lateral, that is side to side and, when they are played, the vibrations are picked up by needles that might be steel or fibre. The steel needles are used once only (three times at a push!) then thrown away. In the case of fibre needles (only) they might be re-sharpened several times before discarding, but in any case, the vibrations cause the needles to become worn. More so if the record is in poor condition.
Some records, produced by the Pathe Frere Company and others, followed the principle used in playing phonograph cylinders and these discs were “Phono-cut” with the information in the bottom of the groove. To read these vibrations a sapphire stylus was used which had the advantage of not wearing out and would play many records without the need to change. In this case the reproducing head and stylus vibrated up and down and the records were known as “Hill-and-dale” recordings.

In general needle-cut records are easier to play. When playing phono-cut discs the reproducer tends to skitter across the disc surface unless the turntable is set up with the greatest care!

It is not always easy to spot phono-cut records and they are easily ruined by using a needle by mistake. Less damage is caused the other way around as a sapphire stylus used in error would not damage a needle-cut record, but neither would it play the record.

If you have a gramophone that is designed to play phono-cut records, the tone arm might well be straight from its pivot and the reproducer will be at right angles to the tone-arm

whereas in the standard gramophone set-up the sound-box will be fitted parallel to the tone-arm on a right angle bend or goose-neck.


Occasionally “duplex” gramophones may be found with a reproducing head on the tone-arm that can be rotated from one position to another so that both a needle or a stylus could be used for the appropriate record.