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19 July 2015

How to restore a washboard

The past couple of weekends have been spent cleaning up a washboard I bought and had shipped over from America.

Here's the washboard as it arrived. It's a pretty basic design: a wooden frame, holding some corrugated brass. It's obviously seen a lot of use; There is soap and remnants of fabric ingrained and caught in the holes. The wood itself is dented and worn, exposing a raised grain. The nails holding it together have rusted. The brass is tarnished and dull.

I love it! 

I chose the Brass King washboard specifically because of it's brass rubbing surface, that and it had "King" in the title ;-)

 I want to try my hand at playing this as a musical instrument and those brass ridges are what I'm after. "The Brass King" was one of a series of models and variants produced by the National Washboard Company in the early 1900s. If my research is correct, the top two commercial washboard companies of the day were the Columbus Washboard Company and the National and between them they would have been responsible for making and selling 50million+ washboards right up until the start of WW2 where materials grew scarce and the world changed forever.

Here's the flip-side of the head plate in an unvarnished state. You can see the National Washboard Company logo and the number 801. This version is the "Top Notch 801" as it has a notched wooden bar above the rubbing surface. Memphis and Chicago are mentioned. See those cracks in the wood! Oh dear!

I love the old-time lettering. My challenge when restoring this washboard was to retain as much of this as possible.

I want to call out a fantastic site by the Bone Dry Musical Instrument Co. which details this and a number of other washboards. On the linked page you'll get a lot more of a description of the actual 801 washboard itself and options for different sizes and models. Definitely a site to check out if you're on the hunt for a washboard yourself. And, if you're feeling particularly lazy, you can buy a washboard direct from them too.

Charles T Gilbert was a part of the National Washboard Company and actively filing patents for washboard innovations to get the edge on the competition. Here's his idea for a double-faced washboard. It was a cut-throat business these here washboards! ;-)

Washboards aren't really designed for taking apart, but this is exactly what I ended up doing to mine. I wanted to clean up the brass and varnish the wood, and I figured the easiest way to do this would be if it was in bits. Dismantling it gave me a real insight into how the washboard was built. It wasn't easy though; The frame was held together with nails that just didn't want to come out. They were rusty and brittle. In the end I figured out that I only need take the top and one leg off to get it dismantled.

I damaged the wood a bit getting the nails out, but my intention is to replace with screws, so hopefully nobody will notice the difference.

In this picture you can see the washboard in bits. I took the opportunity to lightly sand it with a rough grit. It was all I did to clean it up a bit and lose a couple of the rough edges. 

I did glue the crack in the head plate, but to be honest, the wood is too brittle to make much of a difference. What I've discovered is that varnish has allowed a tighter fit which is holding it better. That has made more of a difference.

Also the varnish has made the printing on the head plate stand out more and easier to read. All I did for the head plate was to brush the grime off. I didn't want to lose the printing!

The brass was an absolute sod to clean. I worked it with lemon and baking soda, brass cleaner, chrome cleaner... Funnily enough, the brass cleaner was the best. I just had to keep working it until I couldn't bear it any longer. It came up great. There are all sorts of dents and imperfections that really make this for me.

 I haven't yet put in the screws, but here is the finished washboard from the front. Looking good! The wood has lost its bleached appearance and once again it looks top notch.

Here's a view of the washboard from the back. You can see that I haven't replaced the nails yet; this is all held together with friction at the moment. Lovely!

Now, the next step would have been to pimp this by adding a strap and a block and cowbell, but now I'm not so sure I want to do this. More thinking required. Until then, I'm just going to enjoy looking at it. Ha ha.

I don't know if this is going to work, but check out this washboard video below... You won't regret it!

Doug's ready for Europe! #BMBTOUR #BMBEUROPE Peavey Electronics #France #Germany #Belgium #Netherlands #UK #Ireland #Switzerland
Posted by Ben Miller Band on Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Update 20-Jul-15: After I published this post I only went and put the screws in. Here's a shot of the end result. 


  1. I just bought the exact sad condition, but I am working on it. I plan on using it as a bird feeder after I attach a "trough" for the seed. I notice you didn't re-paint the words at all and relied on varnish to give the words new life. I will do the same. My biggest issue is with the brass. I am trying vinegar, but as you suggested I will no doubt get a can of Brasso tomorrow. Your finished board looks great and gives me encouragement to do the same! Thanks!! Hell of a video, BTW. ;)

    1. Great news Marianne! And good luck with polishing the brass. I'm sure if you persevere, it will turn out fantastic. I would love to see a photo or two of your project when you get going.