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How to Rewire a Vintage Phone so it works Today!

The title of this post is lie number one of a litany of lies to be found on the Internet.

You are NOT going to learn how to rewire a vintage phone. You are not.

I know this from experience. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself as I am want to do when I’m in fits.

I have a number of oddities hidden in my basement. For instance there’s this. And these.

Amongst the stuff is a collection of antique/vintage telephones. Some work. Some don’t. You may wonder why I care whether or not a relic of a phone with an actual dial on it works or not. I like them. I like old phones. I like old things. And I particularly like old thing that can still be used. There’s a certain nostalgia and sentimentality about using a big old handset. Plus if you’re on it you can tell people you can’t talk any longer ’cause you’re stuck to the wall and you need to get things done. That excuse doesn’t work if you’re talking on a portable phone.

There’s one in particular I’ve been wanting to get up and running for a long time.

Northern Electric 302

This phone was in my grandmother’s house in Renfrew, Ontario. It’s not only in perfect condition, it’s one of a couple of phones in my basement that have been part of my family for generations.

So some time before Christmas I decided to look up how to rewire some of my old phones with their vintage 3 wires …
Wires

… to a modern phone line. One would think it’s just a matter of attaching red to red, green to green and so on. But it’s not. Sometimes this connection will get the phone to work to make and receive calls, but the ringer won’t work. Or it’ll make calls but can’t receive them. Or vice versa. It’s a messy business this phone wiring thing. They’re like Fiats. Or Lindsay Lohan’s brain. Nobody really knows how the wiring works.

More Wires

I looked up a few tutorials on-line and a few videos on YouTube and one video seemed to have great potential. All you have to do is attach red to red, combine the green and yellow from the phone and attach them to the green of the phone jack line.

I’m not sure why I was shocked when it didn’t work but it was the Opening a Wine bottle with a Tree Trunk all over again.

Guts

Around 3 hours into it I realized, this probably wasn’t gonna work out for you folks. I would NOT be doing a post on how to make your vintage telephone ring.

But I wasn’t giving up on mine. You see, I have that gene in me. That little slice of DNA that won’t allow me to stop. I can’t give up. I will get so angry and frustrated at points that I need to eat potato chips just to calm down.

Because of the Great and Stupid Paleo experiment, we don’t have any potato chips.

So I got more angry and more frustrated and decided to work through it by eating a block of cheese. Which isn’t very good alone in large portions so I also had some crackers. I’m O.K. with that.

You know why? That little respite from the stupid Paleo plan was enough to get me to settle down and figure it out.

Phone Guts Before

I had another old wall phone downstairs that was wired properly so I dragged that upstairs and compared the guts. They were similar. Similar enough that I could figure out how to hard wire the new phone jack line into the old phone. It made calls and received them. No ring.

So I made some uneducated guesses moving wires and changing things and finally … it rang.

302 Phone Guts

The phone now holds court in the living room.

Antique Phone

If I’d had a bag of potato chips around instead of just cheese and crackers I’m fairly certain I would have been able to resolve any and all conflicts in the Middle East.

And because you were kind of screwed out of any learning anything at all in this post, I have made for you this little video proving that my phone does indeed ring and work.

Yet another reason to love the olden day phones. No Skype.


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88 Comments | Filed Under: Design, DIY Home Decor & Design Videos, Workshop |

88 Responses to How to Rewire a Vintage Phone so it works Today!

  1. Raymonde says:

    Good job on the repair Karen! Besides, that tree stump table and phone were made for each other!

  2. Laura says:

    You are brilliant! Your mother will be proud in spite of your rouge-less face.

  3. Ashley W says:

    I think you are epic and amazing and wonderful! Thanks for the daily joy. :) (sorry to Fella for the emoticon….. <3)

  4. Toronto Boy says:

    I have to admire your tenacity and resolve!

    Incidentally, I was taking a look at your Youtube channel and realized that you haven’t posted a link in either the video or on your channel. I suspect that doing so would garner a few more views to your web site! People on Youtube are missing out on some much needed comedic relief à la Karen! BUHAHAHAHAA! Cheers!

  5. ulli says:

    moehahahahahaaaaa
    hi-la-rious!!
    another job well done!
    x

  6. Ruth says:

    Your mother is going to be livid when she sees the video! LOL! I’m sure you’ll get cool points for figuring out how to fix the phone though…. especially if the grandmother in question is HER mother.

  7. Hazel says:

    I’m impressed. I recently bought a 1970′s phone from ebay because I was a) fed up of the cordless phones breaking and having to buy new ones b) fed up of them not working when we have a power cut (fairly often here) c) I liked the idea of a tomato red telephone.
    I have to say I asked a nice ex-telecom engineer to come and rewire it, which he did, and for less money than he should have done because he enjoyed the nostalgia. I think he also thought I was slightly deranged for wanting it and therefore shouldn’t be taken advantage of.

    I love it and the children have finally realised that it’s switched on as soon as you pick up the receiver.
    The only downside is that (in the UK anyway) it doesn’t register when the recorded voice says “push one for X”.

  8. Moe says:

    Ok, so I’m impressed. My hubby and I spend ALL afternoon yesterday changing out a couple of light fixtures and there were only three wires and they didn’t need to ring. NOT a fun job.
    If I send you a HUGE bag of potato chips can you help me figure out why my vacuum sealer sucks the air out of the bag but then stops and lets the air back in when it’s sealing the bag? It’s commencing to piss me off really bad :(
    The new/old phone looks amazing by the way. And so do you…. Mother should be proud :)

    • Karen says:

      Moe – Oh dear lord. If you think that I look amazing in that video I have not set the bar nearly high enough. ~ karen

  9. RosieW says:

    I would SO take on a project like this, i.e., exactly like this. Great to know it’s possible. My daughter’s home in Buford, GA was the first in the city to get a telephone installed. Would be great to find one from that era. Meanwhile wonder who in the world the homeowners called since only a few businesses had them. House is circa 1915-16.

    You go, gal.

    Rosie, Sugar Hill, GA

  10. Christine says:

    Another cool thing about the old phones is that you always know where it is.

  11. cred says:

    I hate skype, too for all those reasons your video reveals.

  12. Lisa says:

    Good job!..you should have called me…(oh wait..you couldn’t..phone didn’t work..lol).This is my job..to make phones work (3 wires on the old sets..tip..ring..ground)Beautiful phone,btw!Nothing like hearing the old bells ring again,eh :)

    • Karen says:

      Lisa – This old phone didn’t work like that. Technically it should have, but I had to move the wiring on the inside around for some reason. Like I was changing a switch. If you’re really desperate I have another phone that I can’t get to ring for the LIFE of me. I think someone disabled the ring years ago so the inside wires are screwed up to begin with. Bleh. ~ karen!

      • Lisa says:

        Well..whatever you did..you did it right! I know those real old sets got macgyvered so many times over the years (party-lines..one ring ..two ring…burppp)that I am surprised the wiring is still inside..lol.And if you are real desperate and want to ship it out west I’d be more than happy to give it a go..or find someone who can within the company.Or if you let me know the model I may be able to find a decent schematic..:)

        • Karen says:

          Thanks Lisa – I’ll look into what model it is and look for the schematic on-line. If I can’t find it I’ll see if you can find one for me! ~ karen!

      • Michelle says:

        I disabled the ringer on one of those fancy schmancy pant looking ones (not as cool) only because when it ring,it was the loudest most horrifying electronic buzzer ring – ever! Maybe rest assured, yours could be the same.

  13. Kim Merry says:

    I used to have an old black dial phone hanging in my sewing room a few years back. One of my daughters friends asked to call her mom, I said sure just use that phone. A few minutes later I looked over and she was trying to push into the little holes! She said “It doesn’t work”, I had to show her how to DIAL the number! I still get a chuckle thinking about it!
    Love the video!!!!
    Kim

    • Pati says:

      Kim, I had a 1960′s dial phone and I had to do the same thing with my stepson ! And he was 17 at the time !!!!! Amazing,ain’t it ????

  14. Cindy Marlow says:

    I have that exact phone. So, you unhook that one red and attach the red/yellow combo then you unhook that one green and attach the green. Does the black just go off into lala land? I’m guessing that one cannot make calls on this phone (well, maybe YOU can because you might have perfected the “boop, beep, beep, boop, boop” tones with your mouth) since it wouldn’t have tone dialing. Does pulse dialing still work?

    • Karen says:

      HI Cindy – Yes, you can still make calls on it. You just can’t “push 1 for assistance” etc. Rewiring this old phone was a little more complicated for some reason. I had to change the hook up of the wires inside. And yes. The black wire from the “wall” basically does nothing. ~ karen

  15. Amy in Stl says:

    I’m facing a similar wiring dilemma, but kind of reversed. I have boiler heat and central air and both use a different thermostat. One from the 30s and one from the 70s. I bought a fancy new programmable wifi thermostat but the old wires aren’t the proper colors and they are soldered on so if I screw up, I might have a $150 brick and no heat. Have you ever wired a thermostat? The only advice I’ve gotten so far is call an installer. :(

    • Karen says:

      Amy – I have wired a thermostat, but it was so long ago I can’t remember how to do it or explain it to you. Did you get one of those Nest thermostats??? ~ karen

      • Amy in StL says:

        I wanted one, but the research I did revealed they aren’t compatible with both systems. I needed one I could set to heat only/no fan and apparently they’re unable to do that. I bought a Honeywell 8xxx and it’s very simple; but the innards of the old ones have nothing marked or colored!

  16. Gina says:

    Awesome.

  17. Karen says:

    Awesome! I would LOVE a phone like that except I might miss the caller ID to avoid the sales calls. There’s something about the character of antique/vintage things that just beg to be preserved.

  18. tammy carter says:

    I love someone who knows that Fiats, just don’t work! Grew up riding in one, just getting in and out was like brain surgery!

  19. marilyn says:

    hahahaha betty,betty,betty…love the ring tone on that old beauty!

  20. Debbie from Illinois says:

    Love the phone! Love the video even more!

  21. Langela says:

    Lipstick and rouge-LOL! My kids heard the phone ringing and asked, “What is that?” With all the new-fangled ring tones, they didn’t know what a ringing phone sounded like. I LOVE the sound of it.

  22. DzynByJules says:

    I have that exact phone, hoping to get mine up and running then you could call me maybe! Not really sure how to get it to ring though.
    Jules

  23. Miriam says:

    You never cease to amaze me. I must lack that gene: if it’s too hard, I tend to give up and read a book.

  24. Lisa says:

    Love the sound of that ring. Great job on fixing it! Cute video too.

  25. Natika33 says:

    I’m wondering the same thing as Cindy. I thought it wasn’t possible to pulse dial anymore….

  26. Debbie W. says:

    Oh I am so jealous of your grandma’s phone and with your patience (and smarts) to get it working!! I have a hard time helping my 6 yr old put together lego that has step-by-step directions!!

  27. That ring brought back memories. Cute video. Congrats on figuring it out.

  28. Laura Bee says:

    Beautiful! (The phone, you & your jammies)
    After having 2 or 3 cordless phones break or be lost, I gave up & went back to an old rotary. People asked to use my phone & the most common reaction was – half way through, they forget where they were in the number! The cat chewed the cord & I was afraid to rewire it, hubby didn’r like it anyhow, so I bought him a new corded/cordless combo Motorola. I hope that it won’t break or that I won’t lose it in a leaf bag or wherever the others went.

  29. Gigi says:

    Almost went right to paying the bills and decided instead on a quick detour to KarenLand. Of course I should always trust my instincts, as I was richly rewarded with a plucky, save-the-world, in your face sucka, now I’m smarter than you-and a better dresser, morsel of genius. Thanks. I think I hear your phone ringing. It’s your mom. She wants that sweater back if you are just going to let it sit in your closet and not wear it.

  30. Kipper says:

    Reminds me of an old comic..kid is rummaging around a room and says to someone not pictured “you know if they put cords on phones they’d not be so easy to lose”.
    That is a lovey ring!

  31. susan w says:

    The ring reminded me of Sesame Street’s Martians encountering a telephone
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KTc3PsW5ghQ

    Made me happy and in further awe of your brilliance and fanatical perseverance.

  32. katrina says:

    YOU ARE A GENIUS AND OH, SO, SO FUNNY!

  33. susan w says:

    Maybe they can commune with your hens

  34. Jennifer says:

    How is it you can read my mind, I was just staring at the vintage phone that I put in my daughters room (because seriously 5 year old’s need a vintage nonworking phone in their room) thinking I need to make this work prior to her being a teenager so she can truly experience having her own phone and twirling the cord in her fingers while talking to a friend on deep serious matters like what kind of potato chips they are bringing to a party. Because I wrote such a long comment and both kids saw the video, they dragged the phone out and said alright Mama get out the tools, guess I know what we are going to do today! Thank you.

  35. Janet says:

    Karen, I am so jealous! You rock!

  36. Jeannie B says:

    What a lovely old phone Karen. Just think of all the conversations that your gram had on it, over the years. Back in the ’80′s, I installed six extensions and jacks throughout our circa ’50′s house, in the basement and on the main floor. The wiring was old, coming into the house and it was a bit of a nightmare getting all the phones to work and ring. Trial and error mostly. I told the family, never to touch those “fiddled- with” connections, ever! Also lived in fear of ma Bell finding out. Doesn’t matter anymore. By the way, my iPad is set to the “old ring tone”. It rings when I get a new e mail.

  37. Lynne says:

    Ahhhh haaaaaa loved the video !!

  38. mimiindublin says:

    I’d have given up before I even started.
    On the rewiring, not the video/hair/rouge.
    Your Mother is going to kill you when she sees what “done” hair is!

  39. Janet says:

    Love the phone…it’s darling. So’s the video, BTW.
    Any chance you’d know how to rewire my husband so he’d want to get the greenhouse recovered and the trees topped? Thanks for the blast from the past! I hated it when my Grammie decided to get one of those ugly Trim-Line phones. Part of the fun in visiting her was getting to see all the old stuff. Her included, of course.

  40. Patti says:

    Damn. This makes me want to get a landline!

  41. Nancy Blue Moon says:

    The phone looks great and you look..kinda like I do at the moment..but skinnier and blonder..pj’s at 12:30pm..good day here..It’s not nice to lie to your Mom..although so necessary at times..

  42. Linda says:

    Awesomeness! I do love that old ring. I bought a 60′s model from Goodwill and I love the “heft” of holding on to it. The pulse dialing does take a long time, but who cares?! Love your pj’s and punk hairstyle…

  43. Heather S. says:

    If I had a land line I would do this! Sadly no land line and my cat would probably chew through the cord. Awesome video! Your hair looked fine. it was full of character.

  44. Jrn says:

    Love that phone! I want one. As an obsessive garage sale shopper I actually found an old telephone purse which actually works as a phone- IF you plug it into the wall jack!

    Is there anyway to upload photos here ? Anyway, my purse is this one but I bought it for$5 not $119 or whatever: http://www.ebay.com/itm/Vtg-BLACK-PATENT-LEATHER-PUSH-BUTTON-PHONE-HANDBAG-PURSE-/271149781064?pt=Vintage_Electronics_R2&hash=item3f21c95048 I have NO connection to that auction but I can’t find a good photo of that purse anywhere.

  45. Jrn says:

    Oh, wait! I found a better site with the phone purse http://www.tassenmuseum.nl/en/permanent-collection/shapes
    The Tassen Museum of Bags and Purses and they are NOT trying to sell anything. Made in the 1980s-or1970s and apparently rediscovered by Lady Gaga (never thoughti’d have anything in common with her) http://gagafashionland.com/2011/10/new-york-calling-lady-gaga-dallas-handbags/

  46. Shauna says:

    oh darn it, my Mom has a phone nearly identical to this one and I was hoping we would be able to rewire it so it would work too. I don’t think I have the DNA like you do to experiment until it works.

  47. Jrn says:

    By the way,retiring thermostats and phones like you are all willing to tackle? Such courage! I might try the phone though (rewiring). But not the thermostat.

  48. DianneT says:

    My Dad had the DNA to stick with something until he figured it out. I think I’m lucky to have inherited some of that DNA from him, but sometimes I drive my family crazy! Loved your post and that video was hilarious!

  49. Susan says:

    Gawd I love you!! I miss the old Stromberg Carlson phones that you could drop and they’d still work. It’s all crap out there now. xoxoxo!!!!

  50. Lin N says:

    Well done on figuring out getting the phone to work! Great old phone! Love yer ‘cowlick’. Weird term that…..have a brilliant day!

  51. Barbie says:

    ……so? how’d you Mom like that one? LOL
    No worries, just invite her over for some Dill Pickle Chips!

  52. Jeannie B says:

    I have never heard of a telephone purse. Especially with a dial on it. Guess the woman of the house could have just said. “I’m going out, and no one’s using the phone while I’m gone. ‘Cause I’m taking it with me. So there!”

  53. Bobbi says:

    Karen,
    Bravissimo !! Watched the video, but no sound…the little speaker in the bar has a little x by it and I am unable to click it to get it to go away. Get sound on Netflix on my computer, but not on youtube or anything else. Just started about a week ago. No googling has helped. Any ideas ?

    • Karen says:

      Bobbi – I used to know how to fix that when I had a PC but I’ve forgotten all the weird fixes I needed to know, now that I have a Mac. Sorry! ~ karen

  54. Bobbi says:

    Karen,
    Thanks, anyhoo…I reloaded Adobe Flash even though everything I read said it wasn’t necessary and it worked ! Yayyy….any just for your information, you look Mahvelous….your mom has nothing to worry about.-B.

  55. Bobbi says:

    “and”, not any

  56. Nancy says:

    I have two old phones, one that is like yours and another that is cream bakelite with Japanese writing in the dials. I have gone over your photos to see if I can get mine to work too. Any chance you have a step by step DIY for the phone?
    This was a great start.

  57. Kathleen says:

    what can I say. You are way cooler than most people I know.

  58. Nikki Kelly says:

    Ok, now can you figure out how to make it work with an iPhone? Maybe some fancy blue tooth hack so it knows when you’re getting a call, but the big phone rings instead. Oh, and I don’t want to plug it in or any nonsense like that.

    Nikki Kelly @ the ambitious procrastinator

  59. Donna says:

    Apparently you do not have to pay Bell the monthly charge for touch tone if you have the dial phone–lets all get one and that might their attention–hate that monthly rip off. Donna

  60. Charlene says:

    Lousy rough day at work. Thank you for the laugh!!!!

  61. Jack says:

    I have automatic electric lpo8255 payphone. I need
    to get it out of my wooden phone booth. I have no key, is it possible to drill out the lock? or will
    I cause damage

  62. Rob says:

    You’re just like me, I have ADD but can hyper focus, like a missile-lock. I CAN NOT give up, no matter how many hours it takes, and sometimes spending way more money than it is worth.

    What model is that phone? The original ‘matrix’ phone! I love it. Western Electric 301 I believe? Correct me if I’m wrong.

    I’ve always just connected the yellow wire to the green wire (tip). Red wire is (ring). Hearing these terms I didn’t know why the yellow wire didn’t go to the red (ring… makes more sense), but Tip and Ring are coined from back in the days where an operator would plug a headphone-like jack into your line. The tip of the 1/4″ audio-like jack would be the green wire, which is the positive terminal, and the ring would be the lower half, negative. Normally around 45V DC on hook, and when it rings it changes to AC, on my Frontier POTS line I measured 145 VAC at 20Hz.

    The problem I face now is trying to hook these bad boys up to my Google Voice line via an OBI 110. I got a cool box from http://www.dialgizmo.com that converts pulse to tone, but the ring is weak. The OBI202 I can jack the voltage to 145 VAC, and it rings loud enough, but the OBI110 it won’t ring right even when I set it to 145.

    The phone I am working on is the feminine counterpart to the ‘matrix’ phone, the ‘empress’ phone (heavy French looking one with brass handle and oval base) for my sister. However, the ringer has only 1 bell, and rings rather weak.

    It’s a pain in the butt to get apart, has no loudness adjustment, had to mess around with it to get it to work. Has anyone ever swapped capacitors to get it to ring better at lower voltage? Right now it’s a 470 nF 250v, and tested fine. I was looking for a gap adjustment, to no avail.

    Got it to work fine on my POTS, but on my OBI110, it just doesn’t have the juice to get it ringing loud enough. For many this will sound Greek but if anyone knows please reply!

  63. elizabeth says:

    I wanna hook up an iphone to an old rotary phone too! My sister has an “old-school” room in her house, but doesn’t have a land line. It would be awesome if I could get her rotary phone to get calls from her cell/iphone. (And, incidentally, from an i-device to an old radio… I’ve heard its dangerous)

  64. Dave says:

    Hey Karen. If you are looking for info/parts or a new old phone check out these guys … http://www.oldphoneworks.com/ They are in Kingston, On

  65. Thank you for assisting other in keeping these American icons functional and operational. Your persistence aided me in doing the very same. IT RINGS!

  66. Kat says:

    Ha, I just acquired a 1960′s old rotary dial phone and was looking on line how to replace the wire for a jack and your blog came up on it and I burst out laughing when I seen the pictures as I just took a photo of mine on my tree stump side table that I scooped off the patio of an old boyfriend after seeing yours sometime back. My son thinks I am nuts for the phone and the stump but I love them both!

  67. Tara says:

    Hi, I am rewiring a rotary phone today, in Pembroke, 40 minutes west of Renfrew. It was left behind in the house we just bought. Ready to plug it in, wondering what I do what that black wire other than leave it hanging loose.

  68. Greg Field says:

    “You are NOT going to learn how to rewire a vintage phone. You are not.

    I know this from experience. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself as I am want to do when I’m in fits.”

    Very odd that you would say something like that. You may have found it impossible to digest the wealth of info on the net regarding this, The fact that you may lack the necessary skills to do so has no bearing whatsoever on the usefulness of said info. Have any trouble with your smartphone and go to the tech support page, you find you can’t fix your phone, instead of realizing that you are missing something you blame the internet? I restore old phones for a living, I taught myself based on some knowledge of electrical and electronic devices, and have found DOZENS of sources of useful info on wiring all sorts of phones. So it depends on your ability to grasp the technical info, and whether you find a website that speaks to your level of expertise. You are doing people a disservice by discouraging people from trying to learn to do this just because you may not have. Here is the website which I turn to for wiring diagrams http://www.telephonecollectors.info/index.php/browse/wiring-diagrams. So, if you didn’t get it to work, either you missed something or you weren’t using the correct wiring diagrams. I can probably supply all the diagrams you need, or you can them them from where I did at the link below. There are several versions of the 302 desk phone in your photo, this is mostly a variation on ringer configurations. Wiring green and red to the L1 and L2 connectors on the 101 or 104 network inductor will work if there are no other mitigating factors. It’s possible that your phone has already been screwed around with, or possible that there is a mechanical problem with the switchhook or the dial

  69. Aspasia says:

    Okay so I have a, I believe, Bell Atlantic, pay phone. It was updated for modern wiring and works perfectly. My question, have you ever updated any of your phones to wireless? Maybe there is a kit available. Maybe I should contact Verizon as they are the provider of our home service. Maybe you could offer an opinion. THANK YOU for any input. I just stumbled upon your website as I was looking for information.

  70. William says:

    Or you could just go to <> and pick up an adaptor. Or hardwire it to the screw terminals inside your wall jack . . . Just saying . . .

    • Karen says:

      No, actually that isn’t possible with this type of phone. For one thing the phone had to be rewired on the inside because someone had changed the wiring to stop the ringing. So picking up an adapter or hardwiring it to the screw terminals isn’t always possible. Also, different aged phones have different numbered wires. ~ karen

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