National Radio

SW-54 Ads

Here are a couple of old ads from when the SW-54 was new.

Click on an image for a larger view.

SW-54 Ad

SW-54 Ad

Additional Pictures

Here are a few pictures of my latest SW-54.

Click on any picture for a larger view.

National SW-54 Receiver National SW-54 Receiver National SW-54 Receiver National SW-54 Receiver National SW-54 Receiver National SW-54 Receiver National SW-54 Receiver National SW-54 Receiver National SW-54 Receiver


Old Radio Restorations

Don't miss my other radio restorations - I have several listed on my "Projects" page. More…


National Radio Model SW-54

National SW-54 Receiver

One cute, little receiver...

I'll admit it. I'm a sucker for the styling of the 50's National Receivers -- the NC-88, NC-98, NC-125, etc. I love them all. I love the battleship gray color, curved edges, cool NC logo and lighted analog dials. There's no punching buttons here. Just grab the tuning knob and explore the world!

At the low end of the National line during this period was the SW-54 receiver -- a direct competitor to Hallicrafter's S-38 series. A peek at the underside of each shows an amazingly similar layout. The SW-54 sports coverage from .54 to 30 MHz in 4 bands. It is basically an "All American Five" radio with added shortwave coverage. National sold them by the tens of thousands at a time when every nerdy kid needed a shortwave receiver. If you didn't own an S-38, you had one of these.

I've owned two SW-54 models. If you look hard enough, it is still easy to find them in great cosmetic condition for $20 to $30. For that price, you'll probably have to restore the electronics, but this set is rather easy to work on and getting one back to like-new operation is not a daunting task at all. An SW-54 in great cosmetic condition, fully restored, can be worth $60 to $150 -- even more if you find the right interested buyer. You'll be sure to want to keep one of these little beauties in your collection though.

Under the hood

As mentioned previously, the SW-54 is basically an "All American Five" (a nickname for a common 5-tube AM receiver design) with some additions and refinements for shortwave listening. Here's the tube lineup:

Tube	Type	Function

V1	12BE6	Converter
V2	12BA6	CW osc/IF amplifier
V3	12AV6	2nd Det/1st audio/AVC
V4	50C5	Audio output
V5	35Z5	Rectifier

If you want to work on one of these little sets, service information is readily available from many sources. You can find schematics, parts, and alignment info in Photofact Set 141, dated 8-51. These are commonly available through public libraries, or you can buy them from several EBay vendors. You can also download a PDF of the schematic from the Boat Anchor Manual Archive (BAMA.) Get it here. Rider's has the SW-54 featured in volume 22, pages 48-57. Nostalgia Air (another great site worth supporting) has the Rider's version of the manual, a free download, here.

Warning! Warning!

It must be mentioned that this is an AC-DC receiver that uses an unpolarized plug. Depending on which way you plug it in to the AC socket, you can actually have 120 volts AC on the chassis of the radio. Using an isolation transformer while working on this set is a great idea. Be very careful before connecting any external test equipment and make sure the chassis of the radio and your test equipment are at the same potential. Don't stand on a wet basement floor, in your bare feet while working on this set. You get the picture :-). Be careful!

When the cabinet is in place, insulated standoffs keep the possibly live chassis from contacting it, but you want to be careful not to be poking anything into it. This is not a set to leave within reach of a toddler. The same can be said for any tube receiver, especially those with an AC-DC, non-transformer design.

There are ways to make this set safer. You can replace the AC cord with one with a polarized plug, connecting the neutral side to the chassis. You should also reroute the AC wiring so that you are switching the hot side of the line with the on-off switch. You can get a good idea of what needs to be done on "The S-38 Guy's" page on the subject here. Phil Nelson of "Phil's Old Radios" (one of my favorite radio restoration sites) has another safety-related page for AC-DC sets here.

Digging in to the fun stuff

Like any radio this old, you'll want to replace the electrolytic capacitors and waxy looking paper capacitors before you give it any real use. Some guys talk about bringing a set up slowly on a variac and letting it set at a low AC voltage to "reform" the electrolytic capacitors. To each his own, but I'd rather put a few dollars worth of brand-new electrolytic caps in and be sure my radio will be fine for years to come.

National SW-54 underside National SW-54 topside

Looking at the picture above of the underside of one of my SW-54 receivers, you can see 11 brownish and waxy looking capacitors. This type of cap is notorious for going bad. They obsorb moisture, change value, go open, short, or a host of awful things. Get rid of them! If you take the time to test each one with a capacitor analyzer, you'll quickly find out that they are all bad. Don't waste your time. I usually replace this sort of capacitor with commonly available yellow caps.

I've gotten most of my capacitors from three suppliers. In order of frequency:

WJOE.com
Just Radios
Bob's Antique Radio Supply

WJOE Radio has a nice assortment that you can get with or without a case. Just Radios is probably the slickest source and they have a wide variety of caps for radio restoration. Bob's Antique Radio Supply sells larger quantities of caps at good prices. You can also get them from major electronics suppliers like Mouser and Digikey.

That ginormous cap on the right

The large, tubular component on the right of the underside view is a multi-section electrolytic capacitor. The one shown is not original to the particular SW-54 shown, although it had been installed years ago. It looked "vintage" enough that I kept it, but restuffed the insides with new electrolytic caps. After removing the cardboard cover and using a tubing cutter to open the aluminum can, I took out the "guts" of the old cap and replaced them with new electrolytics. I had to drill small holes next to the terminals on the end in order to connect the leads of my new caps. Once completed, the capacitor was like new and it would take a real detective to notice the change.

Other Restoration Necessities

Spray some DeoxIT or other contact cleaner into the controls and onto all the switch contacts. Work them back and forth. Intermittent switches and noisy controls are easy to fix but cause many sets to be be deemed "inoperable." Do the same for the tube contacts. Most non-techie types always assume that a non-working radio is due to burned out tubes. They actually are rarely bad. Even if they are, there are millions of replacements available -- especially for common tubes such as those used in the SW-54.

The AC power cord for the SW-54 is a "cheater cord" type. It is attached to the rear cover and mates with a connector on the chassis. If you take off the rear cover, the AC is disconnected for safety reasons. WJOE.com has replacement cords that will work. The cord exits downward rather than straight out, but it still looks better than a taped up and worn out one. One of the pictures on the left sidebar of this page shows my replacement cord clearly.

Cleaning it up and making it shine

A shiny, clean SW-54 is a beautiful thing. You can make it look like new with a bit of elbow grease (and Windex, and alcohol, etc.) These radios all seem to end up with a brownish looking "grunge" on the cabinet -- especially around the controls. I've found that a bit of lacquer thinner on a rag will clean that up nicely without harming the finish.

Hopefully, your SW-54 won't need a complete paint job. You can get grey and even hammertone finish paint for that. Usually, a bit of Testor's paint and a toothpick or needle can be used to cover the bad spots. You might need a bit of naval jelly to clean up rust, but go easy on that. I don't think that a few minor blemishes here or there detracts from a radio this old. It is a bit of "character" and makes it look more normal than an obviously repainted set.

You can make the cabinet lettering look real nice by using a bit of Testor's white paint. Use a small brush and work it into the recesses of the lettering. After waiting for it to dry a bit, wipe off the excess. During my first attempt at this I kept wiping the paint out of the letter recesses. I finally got the idea that I needed to let it dry a bit more and started using an almost-dry rag rather than one that was still damp with lacquer thinner. Nice, white lettering really dresses up the looks of an SW-54.

After you've done all your cleaning and painting, give your radio a good shine with some car polish. I used some Meguiar's Cleaner Wax on the SW-54 in the pictures and it did a great job.

In Conclusion

The SW-54 is a simple receiver, but with a bit of work you can make it a nice performer. A few feet of wire is enough of an antenna to hear local AM and stronger shortwave broadcast stations, but you'll want a decent outside wire of 30 feet or more to get good reception of weaker and more distant stations. The SW-54 is no R-390, but it sure is a lot cuter!


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