Vintage Instrument Safety Guide

We’ve all heard that vintage amplifiers contain high voltages. However, there are other hazards that a collector should be aware of, particularly if your piece is sourced straight from a barn, shed, or other quasi-outdoor place. These risks can be managed by thorough cleaning and/or servicing. If you’re a DIYer, you should be aware of them so you can take adequate precautions, such as wearing gloves or using a respirator.

This is not an exhaustive list of everything about a vintage instrument that could hurt you. However, it should be more than enough to instill a healthy sense of paranoia. Happy repairs!

Tetanus. Tetanus is a serious, potentially fatal illness caused by a bacteria found in soil, saliva, dust, and manure. As bacteria go, tetanus is actually pretty fragile: it can’t tolerate heat, light, or oxygen. But it also has a special power. In a hostile environment, the bacterium can switch to its spore form. Spore tetanus lives a carefree life, mingling with dust, hanging out in animal feces, going to and fro wherever the wind takes it. Spore form is kind of like hibernation, and tetanus can live out its sleepy spore life for more than 40 years - unless it happens to find itself in a nice, temperate, anaerobic environment, such as a puncture wound. That’s when things get real.

A painting by artist and doctor Sir Thomas Bell depicting a soldier he treated who had caught tetanus from a bullet wound.

A painting by artist and doctor Sir Thomas Bell depicting a soldier he treated who had caught tetanus from a bullet wound.

When you cut yourself, your body starts sealing the wound. This is typically a good thing. But if the wound is a puncture caused by an object that is covered in tetanus spores, we'll, now you’ve just locked the killer inside the house. Sealed away from light and air, filled with all kinds of delectable de-oxygenated dead tissue, a deep wound is exactly the place where tetanus likes to revert to its vegetative bacterium state. Once tetanus is vegetative, it can germinate, release its toxins, wreak havoc inside your body and potentially kill you.

If you are exposed to tetanus, you can get a vaccine pretty much up until you start experiencing symptoms. Most Americans received the tetanus vaccine as children, but doctors recommend getting a booster shot every 10 years. If you’ve been exposed to tetanus, an up-to-date vaccine is the only way to avoid getting sick. Disinfecting the wound doesn’t work because tetanus spores are basically indestructible. Killing a spore requires dipping it in a 24-hour bath of serious chemicals (for instance, carbolic acid) or boiling it for 20 minutes at 250 degrees.

Up to thirty percent of North American soil samples contain tetanus spores, so any dirty and dusty vintage instrument can harbor tetanus. It’s a misconception that rust breeds tetanus. However, rusty objects are likely to be dirty and neglected, which is the kind of environment that tetanus loves. The best way to avoid contracting tetanus is by getting vaccinated. However, tetanus isn’t the only bacterium on the block, and nobody ever wants to take their vaccine for a test drive anyway, so here’s a couple of other steps that you can take to minimize your exposure to bacteria and infections:

  1. Always wear gloves when handling a new-to-you vintage instrument. Inspect the instrument as soon as possible for structural issues, including cracks, protruding nails, smashed corners, or anything else that you could casually cut yourself on.

  2. If you’re picking up an unrestored instrument from a seller, bring gloves with you. If you want to avoid making the seller think that you’ve come to reenact scenes from Dexter, you can go ahead and bring normal-looking work gloves instead of latex gloves. Don’t feel self-conscious about your gloves. Chances are, the seller is as grossed out by this old instrument as you are.

  3. Clean the instrument thoroughly before you start using or working on it. Or, let us clean it for you.

  4. If it’s made from old wood, don’t immediately run your hands along it, no matter how nice the patina is. It’s probably covered in splinters. (This one gets us every time.)

  5. Work in a well-lit area and don’t put your hands anywhere you can’t see them. If it’s unavoidable (for instance, if you’re moving a console Wurlitzer and you want to grab it from the bottom), wear gloves.

  6. Wear gloves when removing old staples, nails, or other fasteners. Use the appropriate tool. Never use your fingernails or some dirty random piece of salvaged metal.

  7. Stop working when you run out of gloves. A decent box of gloves is like $12.99, which we agree is basically extortion!!! But it’s definitely not expensive as a course of treatment for a tetanus patient, which averages $150,000.

  8. Gloves are nice, but they’re not magical. Wash your hands regularly when working on vintage instruments.

Weird tubes. For every cool varietal of audio vacuum tube, there are five more that were built to be installed in some dismal piece of vintage equipment that nobody today uses or would even consider reviving, like CRT televisions. While certain in-demand NOS audio tubes are sold for hundreds of dollars, boring tubes like damper diodes are almost literally a dime a dozen. Some thrifty people pore over data sheets for these forgotten tubes and design audio amplifier circuits to their specs.

Recycling old components is an honorable pursuit and can lead to one-of-a-kind amplifiers with interesting tones. However, realize that some tubes are lost and forgotten for a reason. For instance, certain diodes originally designed for TVs emit x-rays and require heavy-duty shielding to avoid exposing users to excessive radiation. Other tubes fell out of favor because they are more prone to failure than their more well-known counterparts. For this reason, always research obscure tubes before using them in a circuit.

Capacitors that look like resistors. Tropical fish caps famously used a color code, but Mullard wasn’t the only manufacturer to implement striped capacitors. Some obscure capacitors are extremely cylindrical and look a lot like resistors. Like any capacitors, these resistor look-alike can also hold a charge after the device has been removed from power. Basically, if you touch them, they can shock you. So don’t make assumptions about components in old devices, and don’t touch anything you can’t identify.

Notice how this Dynavox amp has the two-prong power cord wired directly into the heart of the circuit.

Notice how this Dynavox amp has the two-prong power cord wired directly into the heart of the circuit.

Power transformerless circuits. Generally, a tube amp has at least two transformers: a power transformer and an output transformer. Some tube designs forgo the output transformer, which is a rare but valid circuit strategy to increase output linearity. These output transformerless (OTL) circuits tend to be used in hifi applications.

At the other end of the spectrum, some tube amps omit the power transformer. While an OTL circuit strives for greater fidelity and better sound, a power transformerless amp provides noisy, bottom-of-the-barrel tone that prizes cheap manufacture over all else. Adding insult to injury, a power transformerless amp can actually kill you. It is a serious shock hazard if it malfunctions (possibly even if it’s functioning correctly, thanks to the non-polarized power cord), because it could send 120v mains voltage to your guitar strings.

A lot of power transformerless amps have very cool vintage styling and all those quirky details we all love to hate about old junky amps. (Just check out the six-inch speaker in that Dynavox!) You can add an isolation transformer and modify the power supply to make it safer, but don’t expect it to suddenly sound like a Princeton. A better option would be to repurpose the chassis and install a better circuit that’s actually worth playing.

Roaches. Roaches love living inside of old electronics, because they love anything that generates heat.

Now that we’ve got the bad news out of the way, here’s the good news: we’ve seen a lot of vintage gear and we’ve never found roaches in any of it. So it’s extremely likely that you won’t see roaches either. However, it’s certainly worth thinking about, because if we did open up a Wurlitzer and roaches started falling out like a waterfall of horror, there’s no telling what we’d do next. We’d probably have to take Fahrenheit 451-style institutional revenge, something that involves buying some flamethrowers and lobbying for the right to destroy all Wurlitzers with fire.

Anyway. The possibility of roaches is remote, but like any natural disaster, it’s good to have a plan. Here are some tips.

First of all, a roach infestation supposedly has a distinctive smell. Like we said, we’ve never stumbled into a den of roaches so we can’t confirm or deny this. (We’re knocking on wood the entire time we write this though, because this article is probably the thing that jinxes us. In fact we’ll probably wake up tomorrow as roaches, forced to live out the plot of The Metamorphosis.) However, when buying gear from strangers you should always listen to your instincts. If the instrument has an unpleasant smell that you can’t quite identify, proceed with caution. It could be roaches or any number of other biological hazards, like mold or cat pee.

Remember that your first line of defense is to just avoid bringing infested gear into your studio, period. If you’re buying locally, bring a screwdriver and open up the keyboard at the seller’s location. There are good reasons to check out the inside, even apart from the specter of insect infestations. You can check for water damage, animal nests, the presence or absence of crucial components…and if roaches fall out, no harm no foul. Just run to your car, floor it back to wherever you came from, scrub the top layer of your skin off in the hottest shower you can tolerate, change your phone number, and choose a different keyboard.

If you can’t open the keyboard up at the seller’s location, that’s okay. You still have options. Unload the keyboard outside, in your backyard, or your front yard, or someone else’s front yard, or an empty field a minimum of twenty-five miles from your house. Then, if roaches fall out in a lemming-like cascade of black death, at least you’re outside so it’s not as bad? As humans, it is our moral imperative to share the earth with creatures great and small. And here you are, basically giving the roaches back to Mother Nature. We’re not positive what your next move should be, but at least you can feel kinda pious about your generosity.

Worst case scenario, you’re opening up the keyboard for the first time indoors at your own studio. This happens to us a lot. We buy a keyboard, and we’re so excited about it that all our roach phobia flies out the window. We don’t ask the seller to open the lid, we don’t open it in an empty field, we wheel it right through the parking lot and through the lobby and all of a sudden its in the studio, there’s a screwdriver in our hands and the moment of truth has arrived. Is this keyboard a treasure chest of mojo or a black hole of roaches? We don’t know. All we can do now is pray.

If you’re in this situation, there are two things to remember. One: make sure that the room is uncluttered, giving you a safe and clear exit path if things get really bad. It’s okay if you run away screaming like a baby, but in situations like this it’s every man for himself and nobody’s going to stop and save you if you trip on an instrument cable and get consumed by the horde. Two: make sure your phone is out and ready to film, because pics or it didn’t happen.

Finally, what if you open up an instrument and there’s no apocalyptic horde but instead a single roach that flies straight for your face? If it makes you feel better, that’s probably an American cockroach, also known as the solitary kind. This species of roach has the self-awareness to know how utterly vile they are, so they travel alone to avoid seeing other roaches and giving themselves an existential crisis.

This little guy probably has hantavirus. Just check out that guilty face.

This little guy probably has hantavirus. Just check out that guilty face.

Rodent droppings. Rodent droppings can carry hantavirus, a disease that can be fatal. The most common way to contract hantavirus is by inhaling infected particles of rodent droppings. For that reason, if you find a rodent nest in an old piece of gear, avoid any method of cleaning it that might kick up dust into the air. Instead, spray it with a disinfectant or a mixture of bleach and water. Then, using a paper towel, pick up the droppings and dispose of it in a garbage can. Always wear gloves and a respirator when cleaning up rodent droppings.

Note that hantavirus can only survive in the environment for about a week, and for just a couple of hours in direct sunlight. Always treat any rodent droppings as if they could be contaminated, but note that the risk of contracting hantavirus diminishes over time. If you are able to safely quarantine the item before working on it, you should do so, since regardless of how careful you are it’s always possible to accidentally kick up dust into the air. Of course, inhaling dust and contaminants is never healthy, so always take the same precautions whether you’ve quarantined the item or not.


Further Reading

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Paulina Salmas