Old radio cabinets are evocative reminders of a simpler age, when master storytellers did the first half of the work and your imagination supplied the rest. Usually made of wood veneers—which are simply thin slices of real wood laid over cheaper or less attractive wood—antique radio cabinets are a graceful, whimsical and nostalgic addition to any room. Do not attempt to refinish wood veneers if you want to maintain the radio’s value. Take it to a professional. If you just want to spiff it up, it’s not hard to refinish wood veneers if you are careful.
Spread a drop cloth over your work surface, to catch any stray drips or spills.
Add 2 or 3 healthy squirts of mild dish soap to a bowl of warm water. Dip a clean, lint-free shop cloth into the soapy water and wring it out until it is barely damp.
Wipe down the radio cabinet with the barely-damp shop cloth. Don’t scrub at it, you don’t want the water to penetrate the veneer. Rinse or replace the cloth frequently, and make sure you wring each new one out completely.
Use wood glue to stick down any veneer that might be peeling up. Follow the directions on the wood glue tube as far as how long to let it sit, and don’t skimp on the drying time.
Gently feather the edges of any chipped veneer by sanding them down a little with 180- or higher grit sandpaper. Be very careful, veneer is typically thin.
Put on your painter’s mask and latex gloves, and use a clean shop cloth to apply gel stripper to the radio cabinet. Put it on in a very thin, even layer. Let it sit according to the instructions—usually 20 to 30 minutes.
Wipe off the gel stripper and old finish with clean shop cloths. On solid wood, you can use plastic scrapers for this step, but veneers are too delicate to risk scratching or cracking them.
Use a staining sponge and water-based stain to re-color your old radio cabinet. Apply it in very thin, barely-damp layers and take special care where your sponge strokes overlap, so you don’t get thick stripes.
Let the stain dry overnight, and then apply a wood sealer if you like. A brush-on one is best, so that you don't risk harming any of the components like knobs and dials. Make sure that your sealer is compatible with your stain by reading the labels on both.
Use a wood filler marker matched to your stain to treat and hide surface scratches. Buff it with a clean cloth to blend it into the stain.
Never refinish an antique radio cabinet yourself if you want to retain its value.